This term I have been preaching a series on our church’s values and last Sunday was on the theme of generosity. In the run up to Christmas this is a good theme to think about.
Christmas is the time of year when probably more than any other we can feel financial stress. The madness of Black Friday, with near riots in some shops, is evidence in itself that the priorities of western society are out of whack. Christmas advertising is constant, every charity mugger is out to get us, and the price of Christmas trees seems to be rising at a rate far in advance of inflation! Those who know me would vouch for the fact that I truly am ‘Mr Festive’; but even my extreme Christmas-enthusiasm can grow a little weary with the financial pressures of the season. (Accompanying sounds of Jennie spluttering with disbelief in the background.)
I am convinced that the way to handle our finances well – in all seasons – is within the framework of generosity. Generosity is liberating. Here’s how:
Generosity is a mark of maturity
The state of our finances affects everything. Having one’s finances in order is an important part of having life in order, because disordered finances tends to cause disorder in every area of our lives. However, having ordered finances requires real discipline – it is not something that just happens by itself. As disciples this discipline should be something we embrace, and the church is one of the best places in which to learn financial discipline. With initiatives such as the CAP money course, and many local churches offering practical help with things such as budgeting, there is plenty of help available. The message is simple: If you need help with ordering your finances, ask!
Financial maturity means acting with both prudence and liberty. Prudence is about handling our finances in a way which means we actually have some money available to do things with. As Proverbs 13:11 expresses it, Wealth gained hastily will dwindle, but whoever gains little by little will increase it. The prudent person learns to add ‘little to little’ in order to accumulate something.
Financial liberty means we trust in God’s ability (and willingness) to meet our needs. As Jesus famously instructed, Do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? (Mt 6:25)
Financial maturity doesn’t use prudence as an excuse for meanness though. Sometimes people claim to be acting with prudence when in reality they are just tight. At the same time, maturity doesn’t use liberty as an excuse for irresponsibility, spending and buying what is not needed and cannot be afforded.
Generosity is the guide that helps us hold the tension between prudence and liberty. To be generous requires prudence, because without prudence it is unlikely we will have anything available with which to be generous! But generosity also thrives in an atmosphere of liberality, which trusts our Father for his supply. The financially mature know how to add little to little, and they know how to give big!
Generosity fights fear
Generosity is a spiritual issue because very often being generous requires a conscious decision to fight our fears. Followers of Jesus are called to live in freedom, not fear, and overcoming our fears is an act of spiritual warfare.
A large measure of the power of ‘mammon’ is its ability to make us fearful. Money speaks to us, ‘You can’t live without me. You’ll be lost without me. Once I’m gone you’ll never get me back.’ In contrast, generosity trusts in God’s limitless supply and believes that money given away is never lost, merely sown. Every time we are generous with our money we are winning the fight that it really is, ‘in God we trust’ rather than in money.
Financial fearfulness, or lack of trust, tends to dress itself up in all kinds of ‘prudent’ attitudes. We can fail to admit our fear for what it is, and try to deceive ourselves that we are acting with financial prudence, when really we should be going to war against our fears by growing in generosity.
When we are generous it is a statement of our trust in God, and this makes generosity an act of worship. I sometimes talk to church members who are not generous in their giving to the church and who dress this up with prudent concerns about how the church spends the money. It is important that churches have robust financial systems in place – we need to be whiter than white on this one, and to act responsibly with the finances we have – but there is a sense in which what happens to money given in offerings is of no consequence to the giver. As a friend of mine once famously said, it doesn’t matter if the elders choose to burn it! This is because what really counts is our act of worship in giving our money away, and trusting that God will still be able to supply all we need.
Generosity just does it!
Because we tend to be self-deceiving about our finances we say things like, “I’ll start to be generous when….” But “When” never comes! I talk to young people in my church who say they’ll start giving generously when they have a deposit saved up for a house. But they then get the house and find that owning a house involves all kinds of expenses beyond simply paying a mortgage, so they then say they’ll start giving generously once they are more established in their careers. But by the time they are more established in their careers they have started having babies, and life has got more expensive again. So they say they will start giving generously once the kids are older, only to discover that teenage children are exponentially more expensive than little ones. When the kids have left home then, comes next – but then there are college fees to pay and the seemingly never ending demands upon the bank of mum and dad. It is very easy to go through life saying “When” and find that when really never does come.
The solution, of course, is just to start! If I had started playing the guitar when I first thought about it thirty years ago, and had then kept at it reasonably regularly, I would probably be a fairly competent guitarist by now. But I never started, and I still cannot play a note! Don’t let this be true of you when it comes to generosity. Generosity doesn’t procrastinate. It just does it.
Switchfoot on the Sacred and the Secular
I could count on the fingers of one digit-depleted hand the number of Christian bands I enjoy listening to on a regular basis. The reason for that will have to wait for another day and another post… perhaps. But it seems I need to decrease that number even further.
I really like Switchfoot. They are a fun, high quality, tight band, whose songs are brilliantly crafted and whose lyrics make me think and/or smile. They rock just hard enough to keep me interested. They also happen to be Christians, as many of their lyrics make plain. But of course, like all Christians who play in a well-known band, they inevitably have to answer that question: “So, are you a Christian band?”
I’ve seen many artists fudge that answer, but I’m not sure I’ve seen any answer with such clarity as this excerpt from an interview with lead singer Jon Foreman. See what you make of his answer:
“To be honest, this question grieves me because I feel that it represents a much bigger issue than simply a couple SF tunes. In true Socratic form, let me ask you a few questions: Does Lewis or Tolkien mention Christ in any of their fictional series? Are Bach’s sonata’s Christian? What is more Christ-like, feeding the poor, making furniture, cleaning bathrooms, or painting a sunset? There is a schism between the sacred and the secular in all of our modern minds.
The view that a pastor is more ‘Christian’ than a girls’ volleyball coach is flawed and heretical. The stance that a worship leader is more spiritual than a janitor is condescending and flawed. These different callings and purposes further demonstrate God’s sovereignty.
Many songs are worthy of being written. Switchfoot will write some, Keith Green, Bach, and perhaps yourself have written others. Some of these songs are about redemption, others about the sunrise, others about nothing in particular: written for the simple joy of music.
None of these songs has been born again, and to that end there is no such thing as Christian music. No. Christ didn’t come and die for my songs, he came for me. Yes. My songs are a part of my life. But judging from scripture I can only conclude that our God is much more interested in how I treat the poor and the broken and the hungry than the personal pronouns I use when I sing. I am a believer. Many of these songs talk about this belief. An obligation to say this or do that does not sound like the glorious freedom that Christ died to afford me.
I do have an obligation, however, a debt that cannot be settled by my lyrical decisions. My life will be judged by my obedience, not my ability to confine my lyrics to this box or that.
We all have a different calling; Switchfoot is trying to be obedient to who we are called to be. We’re not trying to be Audio A or U2 or POD or Bach: we’re trying to be Switchfoot. You see, a song that has the words: ‘Jesus Christ’ is no more or less ‘Christian’ than an instrumental piece. (I’ve heard lots of people say Jesus Christ and they weren’t talking about their redeemer.) You see, Jesus didn’t die for any of my tunes. So there is no hierarchy of life or songs or occupation only obedience. We have a call to take up our cross and follow. We can be sure that these roads will be different for all of us. Just as you have one body and every part has a different function, so in Christ we who are many form one body and each of us belongs to all the others. Please be slow to judge ‘brothers’ who have a different calling.”
Morality As The Sharks Close In
From Wright's Paul and the Faithfulness of God:
Today’s western world is familiar enough with extreme Epicureanism. If the world is a random cosmic accident, why should anything be thought ‘evil’ or ‘wrong’ in the first place? Would not all such categories collapse into the projection of our emotions (‘theft is wrong’ would simply mean ‘I don’t like theft’)? And is not that reduction to emotivism, in fact, what has happened in the post-Epicurean world of modern western morality? Get rid of ‘god’, and you no longer have a ‘problem of evil’. All you have is unwelcome ‘attitudes’ or ‘prejudices’. Not that people can easily live like that. They quickly invent new ‘moralities’ around the one or two fixed points that appear to transcend that subjective, emotive analysis: the badness of Adolf Hitler, the goodness of ecological activism, the importance of ‘embracing the Other’, and so on. Better than nothing, perhaps; but people who try to sail the moral seas with that equipment look suspiciously like a handful of survivors clinging to a broken spar as the ship goes down and the sharks close in.
Does God’s Presence Go Missing?
I'll start this post with two disclaimers. One, I realise that Twitter is a notoriously bad medium for communicating with nuance, since it both forces brevity (through software) and encourages provocative remarks (through the peer pressure of gaining followers, retweets, and so on). Two, I also realise that I have a substantial hobby horse about the unbiblical use of "presence" language in charismatic circles - so substantial that I often hear it neighing and snorting behind me when I'm commuting, or talking to people, or doing the shopping. With those two caveats in place, I want to take issue with a comment I saw on Twitter recently: not primarily with the tweet itself, although I want to take issue with that too, but with the line of thinking it represents, which seems to be pretty widespread. It went like this: "Church leaders, are you as quick to notice when God's presence is missing from your meetings as you are when key families are missing?"
The person who wrote that is a serious thinker, and knows a lot of biblical theology, so I assume it doesn’t mean what it initially sounds like it means. I assume it is intended to refer to churches like some of those in Revelation 2-3: gatherings of people who have so lost their zeal for God that he has long since withdrawn his presence from them. But it sounds like it means something else, whether through being truncated, abruptly expressed, or whatever. It sounds like it means, hey, church leaders, watch out: God often appears in your meetings, but sometimes he doesn’t, like a key couple who are usually there but sometimes not, and you need to be aware that that can happen. The sensitive readers may even catch a hint of and when it does, it’s because you’re not leading them properly. But even if not, the impression it gives (particularly through the analogy of a key couple who are missing) is that sometimes God comes to your meetings, and sometimes he doesn’t. Yikes.
As I say, it’s not really the tweet, but the entire school of thought it appears to represent, which troubles me. People sometimes sing “Waiting here for you ... we’re desperate for your presence” without regard for the fact that the presence of God has already come to them in an irrevocable way, both individually and corporately, and Jesus has promised never to leave them nor forsake them. They talk about “seeking the presence”, and quote Moses’ famous prayer, “if your presence doesn’t go with us, don’t send us up from here” - again, without reference to the vital points that even then, God had already promised to go with Israel, and that, since Pentecost, it is simply impossible for a church who believes and preaches the gospel to somehow “lose” the presence of God. (If Paul could reassure the bungling Corinthians, with all their immorality and idolatry, that they were the place where God dwelt by his Spirit, then unless you’re denying the gospel, you can bet your boots it’s true of you). And I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard people ask whether we would notice “if the Holy Spirit stopped coming to our meetings,” usually in the context of warning against insufficiently charismatic corporate gatherings. Quite why this bizarre scenario is being envisaged, or being used to motivate anybody to do anything, is not clear to me.
Paul, of course, reasons in precisely the opposite way. When challenging wayward, disobedient or divisive Christians, his approach is not to say, “hey guys, if you carry on like that, God will remove his presence”, but rather, “don’t you know that you are God’s temple, and that God’s Spirit lives in you?” As such, if we want to motivate people to pursue dynamic experiences of God in our meetings - which I’m sure we do! - we are better off reminding them that God is present, rather than warning them that he might not be. As Terry Virgo put it in a recent tweet: “if the church is a temple of the Holy Spirit, wouldn’t we expect to meet him there?” Spot on.
It may be that the tweet I’m responding to, and many of the similar-ish comments I’ve come across, have a somewhat different explanation: people may be talking about “the presence of God” when what they mean is “our awareness, or experience, of the presence of God”. That would account for quite a few quirks in the discussion, particularly the strangeness of huge crowds of temples of God’s presence singing about how they’re waiting for God’s presence. But surely, surely, we need to be more careful with our language here? When pastors, teachers and songwriters start talking about the Spirit as if he might or might not be there in meetings, doesn’t that lead to a lower expectation for encounter, rather than a greater one? And even if it didn’t, wouldn’t the fact that it is unbiblical preclude us from talking that way?
Perhaps everyone who says things like that, and sings things like that, knows that it’s code for something else. But my guess is that an awful lot of people don’t. So I think it’s incumbent on those of us who teach, and lead, to be a bit more careful with our words. There was a time when God’s people had to go somewhere, or wait a while, to experience his presence. Not since Pentecost, though.
Plato, Betjeman and the Surprise of Christmas
The evenings are darker. Mince pies are beyond-ubiquitous. Starbucks have ditched their white cups in favour of red. I’ve not yet seen the Coca Cola advert, but it’s rumoured to be out there, if my Twitter feed is anything to go by. Christmas is nearly here.
Whatever you make of Christmas – whether you love or loathe the carols, decorations and festivities – it’s undeniable that this 2,000-year-old event has had an extraordinary effect on the world. It’s celebrated on every continent, has inspired so much art, and even our calendar is divided around it. But its central message remains surprising and challenging.
The Greek philosopher Plato wrote in The Symposium about the separation between mankind and the gods. He believed that the gods were distant and barely accessible, and interaction could only possibly be achieved through rituals like prayer, worship and sacrifice. He concludes that, ‘The divine will not mingle directly with the human.’ This view was common in the ancient world. Most cultures believed there was a gulf between the human and the divine and had rituals and practices that helped people connect with the gods. Many cultures still do today.
But the message of Christmas is that a unique event has occurred, in which the divine and the human have mingled. As the New Testament writer John puts it, God ‘became flesh and dwelt among us’ (John 1:14).
Every year millions of people around the world sing carols, listen to readings, and reflect on this ancient story. And when they do these things they continue to find significance in them, for they remind us that the divine and the human can be reconciled, that God is accessible and that his mission was not confined to a single moment in history. Jesus’ birth, life, death and resurrection started something that has rippled out across the world. Today, he sends us to continue his mission, bringing hope to the needy, restoration to the broken, and helping people find relationship with God.
If this story has even the remotest ring of truth, it’s worth exploring. As John Betjeman put it:
And is it true,
This most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained-glass window’s hue,
A Baby in an ox’s stall?
The Maker of the stars and sea
Become a Child on earth for me?
No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare -
That God was man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine.
Desiring the Kingdom
James K. A. Smith is one of the most important thinkers in contemporary evangelicalism - how often do you come across a Calvinist Pentecostal philosopher who has written books on both Derrida and Christian formation, and who gets quoted by Tom Wright and David Bentley Hart? - and his book Desiring the Kingdom may be his most important book. There's an immensely helpful summary of it here from Justin Holcomb, and although I know it means clicking a button and going to another website, I really urge you to read it if you come from a church that (a) sees education as entirely cognitive, or (b) doesn't really like or even think about liturgy. Here's an excerpt:
Two assumptions shape the book and guide the discussion. First, in part one, Smith contests one common understanding of human beings (anthropology) which sees them primarily as “knowing” individuals. Instead Smith asks, “What if education wasn’t first and foremost about what we know, but about what we love? That is actually the wager of this book: It is an invitation to re-vision Christian education as formative rather than just an informative project.” (pp.17-18). Second, in part two, Smith challenges the idea that education or any other practice can be religiously “neutral,” and argues for an expansive understanding of “liturgy” as love shaping habits: “The core claim of this book is that liturgies - whether “sacred” or “secular” - shape and constitute our identities by forming our most fundamental desires and our most basic attunement to the world. In short, liturgies make us certain kinds of people, and what defines us is what we love” (p.25) ...
In chapter three, Smith models what he refers to as a “cultural exegesis” of our secular rituals and practices. This cultural exegesis involves asking “What vision of human flourishing is implicit in this or that practice? What does the good life look like as embedded in cultural rituals? What sort of person will I become after being immersed in this or that cultural liturgy?” (p.89). Therefore, cultural exegesis, much like biblical apocalyptic literature, is a mode of “unmasking” or “unveiling the realities around us for what they really are” (p.92). Smith’s hope is that “the shift of focus from ideas to practices, from beliefs to liturgy, will function as a methodological jolt that gets us into a position to see cultural practices and institutions in ways we’ve never seen them before” (pp.92-93). By way of example, he offers three liturgical analyses of cultural institutions by examining the mall, the stadium, and the modern university demonstrating that “implicit in their liturgies are visions of the kingdom—visions of human flourishing—that are antithetical to the biblical vision of shalom” (p.121). However, even these secular liturgies point to the fact that we are liturgical animals. “Secular liturgies don’t create our desire; they point it, aim it, direct it to certain ends” (p.122). Here Smith appeals to Calvin’s sensus divinitatis, which he suggests—differing from the popular interpretation—speaks of our proclivity towards worship (as opposed to theistic belief/knowledge).
Wright on the Story of Torah
From Paul and the Faithfulness of God:
Once we grasp how the plots and sub-plots of the story work, then, we can be quite clear that for Paul Torah is the divine gift which defines and shapes God’s people. God’s people follow their strange vocation through the long exile, and finally to the unexpected (and indeed ‘apocalyptic’) events which years of preparation, through the period (particularly) of failure, curse and exile, and finally to the unexpected (and indeed ‘apocalyptic’) events which Paul sees both as the fulfilment of all the earlier promises and the new creation which has arrived as a fresh divine gift. Torah accompanies them all the way, like a faithful servant doing what is required in each new eventuality, taking on the different roles demanded by and at the different stages of Israel’s journey, and finally attaining a new kind of ‘fulfilment’ in the heart-circumcision promised by Deuteronomy and supplied by the spirit. At one moment in the narrative the moon is waning; at another it is full; at another, it helps to bury the dead. This narrative framework frees Torah from the burden of always playing the villain in a Lutheran would-be reading of Paul, or the hero in a Reformed one. It offers, instead, a chance for Torah to be what Paul insists it always was: God’s law, holy and just and good, but given a task which, like the task of the Messiah himself, would involve terrible paradox before attaining astonishing resolution. The Torah shines with borrowed light, and the horned dilemmas it has presented to exegetes are only resolved when the complete cycle of waxing and waning has played itself out.
The Life Cycle of a Ritual
A couple of weeks ago I preached on Nehemiah 8, where the people read the Scriptures, came across the instructions to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles – probably from Leviticus 23 – and dwelt in tents for seven days as a reminder of the Exodus. It was a joyful celebration, which I must confess I find quite inconceivable… how can anyone enjoy the prospect of a week of camping?!
But one verse, which I didn’t get time to elaborate on in the talk, stuck out to me.
‘All the assembly of those who had returned from the captivity made booths and lived in the booths, for from the days of Jeshua the son of Nun to that day the people of Israel had not done so. And there was very great rejoicing.’ (Nehemiah 8:17)
The first reason this verse struck me was that it’s not, strictly speaking, true. It is not the case that the Feast of Tabernacles had not been practiced at all from Jeshua until that day. See Judges 21:19; 1 Samuel 1:3; 1 Kings 8:2, 65; Zechariah 14:16; Ezra 3:4 etc… So what is going on here?
Commentators suggest that the ritual, whilst still having been practiced across the centuries, had lost its significance. As people erected the booths over the years, they increasingly saw them as representing the kind of tents harvesters used in the fields. And so the feast morphed into a Harvest Festival, rather than a re-enactment of the Exodus and the wilderness wanderings. But now, in the hands of people who had themselves just returned from exile, the ritual took on a deeper meaning. It spoke to their situation in a way that it hadn’t done for centuries.
I think this is a fascinating picture of the life cycle of rituals, which helps me understand something of what’s going on with many young Christians today.
There has been much talk recently about the fact that the Millennial Generation is particularly drawn to forms of worship that demonstrate historical rootedness through the use of ritual. Leaving aside the very real possibility that this is nothing more than a fad, and the fact that ‘Millennials love rituals’ is as sweeping a generalisation as ‘women love pink’, I think there is truth in this observation. Liturgy, iconography, contemplative worship, symbolism and ancient creeds seem to resonate with the Millennial Generation, in a way that baffles many older guys; particularly the non-conformist ones who fought so hard to distance themselves from anything that had the whiff of ‘dead religion.’
But what Nehemiah 8 teaches us is that there is a life cycle to rituals. A particular habit or practice may start out being deeply relevant and powerful, but over time, whether through over-familiarity or lack of thoughtfulness, it can take on a different form and lose its usefulness entirely. This can create a knee-jerk reaction from some who want to do away with the ritual entirely. But in the hands of a new generation who sees themselves and the world differently, an ancient ritual can take on a new and profound significance.
Sometimes reviving the rituals of the past is helpful. It can remind us to look at the world through the eyes of our forefathers and see beautiful things that have helped thousands – if not millions – of people before us relate to God. If our natural bent is to scorn ancient practices, we would do well to keep an open mind and consider that just because a ritual may have become dead to us, doesn’t mean it either started that way, or will seem that way to others. What may appear to us as a stale practice may contain layers of meaning that others perceive and we fail to recognise. Nehemiah and his people suddenly realised a truth that had become obscured over the centuries: “we are exiled people dependent on our God for deliverance.”
The flipside is also true. We would do well to question the rituals we practice to make sure they still have the function and power that we think they do. Non-conformists may be just as ritualistic as their denominational counterparts; it’s just they’ve made a ritual out of rejecting ritual! Every group of worshippers has its own collection of rituals and it helps from time to time to ask whether an act that we practice still carries the intended weight. If not it might be that we need to reinvent it, or at least re-teach about it, to help people understand its significance.
All of which should not be misunderstood as a plea to reinstate camping. There was a definite life cycle to that ritual (Moses: Feast of Tabernacles > Israel Pre-Exile: Harvest Ritual > Israel Post-Exile: Revived ‘Exile-re-enactment’ > Modern Christians: Camping at Bible Weeks) and on behalf of the Millennial Generation, I’d like to suggest we put that one to rest once and for all! ;-)
A Question on Limited (or Definite) Atonement
Here's a preliminary question on limited / definite atonement - before, that is, reviewing the argument of From Heaven He Came and Sought Her, which looks like being the standard exposition of the Reformed view for the next century or so. The question comes from the impression I get, from my admittedly cheap seats, that the Reformed view is being expressed more and more in terms that the Remonstrants would have agreed with, and that the most compelling articulations of limited atonement / definite redemption are also the ones that sound the most Arminian. So here are two quotations, followed by a question. The first quotation is the relevant Article of Remonstrance (to which the Canons of Dort responded), and the second is from John Piper (pretty much today's leading advocate of five point Calvinism).
Article II — That, agreeably thereto, Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world, died for all men and for every man, so that he has obtained for them all, by his death on the cross, redemption, and the forgiveness of sins; yet that no one actually enjoys this forgiveness of sins, except the believer, according to the word of the Gospel of John iii. 16: “God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life”; and in the First Epistle of John ii. 2: “And he is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.”
Piper: “The atonement of Christ is sufficient for all humans and effective for those who trust him. It is not limited in its worth or sufficiency to save all who believe. But the full, saving effectiveness of the atonement that Jesus accomplished is limited to those for whom that saving effect was prepared. The availability of the total sufficiency of the atonement is for all people. Whosoever will—whoever believes—will be covered by the blood of Christ.”
My question, then, is simply: how are these different?
A Mission of Grace
In the (nearly) six years that I have led the church I am now at there have probably been two themes I have emphasised over all others. I’m pretty sure that an analysis of my sermons over that period would corroborate this, and prove that the two drums I beat most often are those of mission and grace.
Fundamental to my understanding of Christianity is that we are called into an adventure of faith and this means being on mission together. The Great Commission applies to us right here, right now. A significant part of my emphasis upon mission has been to try and help my congregation grasp that we don’t just send a select few to be missionaries overseas, but that all of us are called to be missionaries. I constantly reiterate that we don’t have an evangelism program; rather, the church is the evangelism program. I work hard at helping church members think hard about how they can connect with those outside the faith, contextualize what they believe, and contend for the truth of the gospel. If I had to pick one word to sum up the purpose of the church I would choose ‘Mission’.
At the same time I have beat the drum of grace equally loud and often. I love to draw attention again and again to the unmerited favour that is ours in Christ. Again and again I explain that we need not – cannot! – add anything to the salvation Christ has already accomplished for us. I speak about the freedom, joy and security that is the believer’s birthright because of the free gift of grace. If there was one word I would use to sum up the culture a church should display it would be ‘Grace’.
On the first night of our summer holiday this year I experienced a crisis moment. (Talking with others subsequently it appears I am not the only person who has suffered such a moment on the first night of a holiday – the sudden change of gear from the normal pressures of life can precipitate something of a psychological collapse.) As I reviewed my life, and ministry, I was flooded with existential angst. What have I achieved? What has been the point?
The real nub of my crisis was that despite all the emphasis I place upon mission the evangelistic fruit in my own life is pitiably small. It is not only that I preach mission, I also seek to practice what I preach. We have many friends from outside church. We regularly have non-believers in our home. We seek to contend and contextualize and connect. So, my self-loathing-self-questioning went, Is the gospel not actually true? If it is why haven’t I seen more fruit? If it is, is the problem simply that I am useless? I may as well give up! I had a bust up with my wife (which is a mercifully rare occurrence in our marriage) was angry with the kids, angry with the world, angry with myself, angry with God. I felt depressed, dissatisfied and ready to jump off the mountain on which our holiday home was situated.
We were staying in the French Pyrenees and the next morning I sat down on the roof terrace, looking up at the mountain which the previous night I had considered jumping from, and opened my Bible to where I was in my regular readings – Isaiah 52 – and read, “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news”. As I read that familiar verse I was overwhelmed again by the grace of God. Grace means that if I never see visible fruit I am not condemned. Grace means that if God, for whatever reason, never enables me to do the things I would liked to have done, he is still sovereign – and good. Grace means that if I do not achieve the things I would have liked to have acieved that does not invalidate me or my call. Grace means that when I proclaim the gospel something beautiful is happening. It’s all grace!
Grace! Grace changes everything!
All of which is my somewhat convoluted answer to the question posed by Andrew about whether pastors should be missionaries. Yes, we should, because every believer is called to be a missionary. Mission is our heartbeat. But grace is the corresponding beat, and grace means we don’t beat ourselves up when we are not getting everything done we think we should get done. Grace makes it plain that we cannot get everything done, but Jesus achieves absolutely everything he intends to.
The Body of Christ is Like a Bad Marriage
Here's a very provocative analogy from Christena Cleveland, being interviewed by Thabiti Anyabwile. The church is like a bad marriage, she says:
In my social psychology class, the students and I examine lots of research on satisfied and dissatisfied couples. Some of the most interesting findings show that dissatisfied couples assume the worst of each other, tend to discount positive behavior and tend to attribute negative behavior to global, stable causes like personality.
For example, if a wife in a distressed marriage wakes up early on Saturday to surprise her husband with breakfast in bed, he’s likely to interpret her positive behavior by saying, “She must want something from me.” Or, “She probably couldn’t sleep. She only made breakfast for me because she was bored and it gave her something to do.”
However, if the wife in a distressed marriage commits a negative behavior, say she forgets to tell him that she’s coming home late from work and will have to miss dinner, he’s likely to interpret her negative behavior by saying, “It’s because she’s a selfish person.” He’s unlikely to think that she’s an unselfish person who simply happened to forget to call this time.
So the husband disregards the wife’s positive behavior and assumes that her negative behavior is fueled by stable personality deficiencies. As you can see, the husband and wife never sit down to have a meaningful conversation. Instead, the husband’s perceptions of the wife are wholly based on his assumptions. In a distressed marriage like this, no matter what the wife does, she loses!
I’m sad to say that I see this dysfunctional pattern of relating in the body of Christ. People from different tribes often act like the disgruntled husband in the distressed marriage. We tend to zero in on the “negative” behaviors that other Christian groups are engaging in and we tend to attribute those behaviors to personality deficiencies (e.g., “They don’t value Scripture” or “They’ve become too worldly”). Meanwhile, we barely notice the positive things that other groups in the body of Christ are doing. If we notice them at all, we often assume that their motives are impure, that they have an “agenda” or that they’re not worth listening to because they’re outside our tribe.
You can read the whole thing here.
Wright, Idolatry and Humanity
From Paul and the Faithfulness of God:
Paul has not ‘revised’ or ‘rethought’ the standard Jewish belief about pagan idolatry, a belief rooted in the sneers of the prophets and the scorn of the Psalms. He has reaffirmed it. We are monotheists, he insists, not pagan polytheists! Those who scramble over themselves to declare that the Areopagus Address in Acts 17 could not have been given by Paul because it is so positive about pagan philosophy, quoting from pagan poets and so on, regularly fail to notice that the heart of the speech is a classic Jewish denunciation of idols, their shrines and their sacrifices. The speech is set, of course, on the rock of the Areopagus, in full view of the magnificent Parthenon and the smaller but still stunning Temple of Nike, two of the most beautiful constructions ever erected by human hands. And the Paul of Acts declares that they are a waste of space, a category mistake. The Paul of the letters shakes hands with his shadowy Lukan Doppelgänger across the void of critical fashion: that is exactly what they are. So much for the first, and most important, pagan symbol. There is one God, the creator of all things, and it is a mistake of the first order to suppose that this God can be contained within, or identified with, anything in this present world. So far, this is precisely what we would expect from a strict first-century Jew; from a strict monotheistic Jew who believed that the one God had made, and owns, the whole world and all its ways and wisdom; from such a Jew who has been transformed from within so that he believes the Jewish story has reached its long-ordained climax. God is not, and cannot properly be manifested in, any kind of object within the world of space, time and matter.
With one exception. Written into the charter deeds of creational monotheism – i.e. the opening chapters of Genesis – Paul knew that there was one creature who was designed, not to contain the creator God (as if such a thing were possible) but, at least, to reflect him. Part of Paul’s radical and robust rejection of pagan idolatry was based on the clear belief that idolatry not only diminishes God; it diminishes, also, those who actually do bear God’s image. It steals their privilege and bestows it elsewhere; or rather, since it is these same humans who are doing it, pagan worship sells its own birthright for a mess of idolatrous pottage. It puts humans below the birds, animals and reptiles. Humans were supposed to be running God’s world as his vicegerents, his image-bearers, reflecting into the world the glory and wise ordering of its maker. Paul’s typically Jewish reaction against the dehumanization that results directly from idolatry was only heightened by his belief that there had come at last a truly human being, ‘the image of the invisible God’, whose aim was precisely to rehumanize other humans, to rescue them from the corruption brought on by idolatry and to re-establish them as what they were supposed to be. Paul’s rejection of the central symbols of paganism was heightened by what he believed about Jesus.
An Epic of (un)Biblical Proportions?
2014 will be the year of the biblical epic. And rather fittingly, the films are coming two by two!
You’ve probably seen the trailer for Darren Aronofsky’s Noah, which was released last week and has already evoked a plethora of opinions. Some seem to consider it a triumph; “the Bible is being put on a big screen! The evangelistic opportunities are unparalleled! And if we’re lucky, Jesus might schedule the second coming for the premier! White Horse on a Red Carpet!” whilst others are lamenting the fact that the writer has filled the story out with details not include in the Biblical accounts, as if a watchable film could have been squeezed from three or four chapters of Genesis, without the slightest use of any imagination or artistic license!
Trevin Wax’s post on how Christians should respond to the film is typically helpful, and I loved the way he expressed how Christians tend to overplay both the panic and promise:
“The critics overplay the danger of a biblically inaccurate film, tending to see all artistic license as sacrilegious. The celebrators overplay the promise of a Hollywood blockbuster, expecting spiritual fruit to come, not from the Word, but from pixels on the big screen.”
Whatever the final outcome, chances are it will be big, and loud, and aggressive, and gruesome. As, indeed, was the flood. Anything less would sell short the grotesqueness of the story.
My opinion means little until I’ve seen the film, but for what it’s worth, bits of the trailer made me think. I was intrigued by the way Noah ‘heard God’s voice.’ I hadn’t really considered how they would depict that on screen (assuming Morgan Freeman wasn’t going to make an appearance!) and it’s got me pondering about what OT prophetic experience might have looked like. Also, I liked the way they imagined people trying to take the ark as the flood arrived. There’s every possibility that did happen – it seems natural. And thirdly, although it was no-doubt Hollywood rhetoric rather than considered eschatology, I liked the strapline, “the end of the world is just the beginning.” N.T. Wright would be proud.
From the trailer, I have no idea if it will be a good film. I’ve no idea if it will make me feel that more good has been done than harm for public attitudes towards the Bible. I’ve no idea whether it will provoke fruitful conversations, or just reinforce people’s scepticism. But I personally wish Aronofsky had been able to present the film as he wished, without having to adapt it due to pressure from religious reviewers and focus groups. We’re not well-known for our incisive and unbiased opinions on what makes a good film! I was never under any illusions that it was going to be a biblically accurate movie, so I’d rather see the version that stays true to the Director’s original vision, than one that’s trying to please everyone! But that’s by-the-by…
The second biblical film coming out in 2014 is Exodus, the new Ridley Scott adaptation of the story of Moses, with Christian Bale in the leading role. When asked about the project, Bale said this:
“It’s an intriguing piece, because it’s very few people that I’ve met that have actually read the Torah, the Pentateuch, the five books of Moses, all the way through… Most people read snippets. If you read it all the way through, it’s harsh. It’s really ‘Old Testament.’ And violence in the extreme. [Moses] was not a man of any half measures whatsoever.”
This quote is interesting. Tell me; how and when did ‘Old Testament’ become shorthand for ‘violent’? I mean; I’m not expecting Christian Bale to make nuanced theological pronouncements, but seriously? The story of Moses is ‘really Old Testament’?! How and when did a limited number of violent texts become indicative of the whole Old Testament? And why these verses, rather than the countless torrents that express God’s love, mercy, graciousness, forgiveness, provision, faithfulness, and so on?
And taking these two films together, why are directors, actors and (presumably) filmgoers drawn to biblical stories in a secular age? Particularly ones that include so much violence and bloodshed? Why is it that people will deplore the Bible for its bloodshed and violence yet happily plunder the very same passages for a film-premise? Why is it that we’re happy to be entertained by the Old Testament but not instructed by it? It makes good TV, but bad laws. It’s great for Hollywood, but keep it out of our schools, our conversations, and our civil debates.
Of course, I understand why people might be happy to watch something on a screen whilst distancing themselves from it in reality. I am entertained by a whole host of things I know to be untrue. But there is something faintly hypocritical about it, is there not? Even if the hypocrisy is barely different from a gun-shunning pacifist enjoying Die Hard from the comfort of his (my?!) sofa. I find it a telling and thought-provoking thing, that people are happy to leave morals at the door of the cinema and be entertained by something that we would find abhorrent in any other context.
It appears that something is only barbaric once it ceases to be fiction and starts to suggest something we don’t like to believe about our world…
Do Church Leaders Really Have to be Missionaries? Some Questions From an Anonymous Pastor
A few days ago, a friend of mine who pastors a Newfrontiers church got in touch with me, and expressed some superbly insightful questions in the context of a personal struggle he’d been having. As we’ve done here before, I thought it might be good to air his questions, give it some thought, and crowd-source some possible answers. If you have the time to comment, I’m sure he (and I) would appreciate it. He writes:
I know the deal. Every pastor needs to be a missionary, and if we’re not, our churches will gradually become reclusive, introspective bomb shelters that make no impact on our communities and dishonour Jesus. Our churches need to be on mission; there’s no way we can lead our people into mission if we’re not on mission ourselves; and that makes personal evangelism a vital, even central, component of our ministry and family lives. I’ve done that, and said that, for years. By all means, pastor the church. By all means, lead your family. But if you’re not sharing the gospel with ordinary people on a regular basis, the church will disconnect from mission. And – although people don’t often say this, it’s clearly implied – the church will slowly die, and you’ll have failed.
So I’m exhausted. I have a wife to serve, children to train, a church of several hundred to pastor, an eldership team to lead, sermons to prepare, meetings to run, young leaders to develop, pastoral crises to resolve, and a Saviour to worship, not to mention any community involvement, translocal responsibilities or other “extras” I might have. To be honest, I think I’m doing most of those things fairly well. But there’s this guilt that often crashes over me when I think about evangelism (or being missional, or whatever we call it). It just feels overwhelming to do all of those things, and to have unbelieving friends round the house on a regular basis, and to invest significant amounts of time developing friendships with people who don’t know Jesus (even if I don’t have much in common with them), and to actively cultivate hobbies or lifestyle patterns that make such friendships easier, and so on. It feels to me like Jesus – if that’s where the pressure is coming from – is demanding an awful lot of me. And that doesn’t sound like the Jesus I know.
So I wanted to ask a few questions, and see if you have any wisdom that might help me.
1. Is it wrong – as in, sinful – for a pastor not to be proactive in evangelism? Obviously I need to be ready with a reason when people ask me about the gospel (1 Pet 3:15), and to be wise, gracious in speech and able to answer each person (Col 4:5-6), and to preach the gospel within the context of my church (2 Tim 4:1-5), but am I sinning if I don’t actively seek out relationships with unbelievers, with a view to sharing the gospel with them? Is there a biblical passage that speaks to that?
2. If faced with the choice between spending available evenings (and it is usually evenings) developing friendships with unbelievers, and spending them helping people in the church through dark times in their lives, is there a biblical reason to say the former should take precedence over the latter? Put differently, is there anything to say that pastors shouldn’t mainly spend their time – well – pastoring people?
3. How far should we take the apostle Paul as a model for pastoral ministry? He was an astonishing individual – a pastor, teacher, apostle, evangelist – whose place in God’s plan for the world was unique. So do I need to take the things he said about gospel preaching (like “woe to me if I don’t preach the gospel”, and “I’m indebted [in the gospel] to Jews and Greeks”) and apply them to myself? Or are they more expressions of his unique apostolic role?
4. Does the Great Commission, which most would take as the classic summons to Christian evangelism, actually apply to all Christians, or indeed require what we now call “evangelism” (as opposed to “frontier mission” or even “discipleship”)? We assume that many of Jesus’ instructions to the twelve are specifically for the twelve: what about this one? And what does it actually mean?
5. Why does Paul talk so little about ordinary churches and individuals preaching the gospel, and talk so much about gospel preaching as something he himself did? The only text I can think of where he might be referring to ordinary Christians preaching the gospel is 1 Thessalonians 1:8, and even that is unclear. Why?
6. Is it wrong to find people who aren’t Christians a bit frustrating and exhausting, on the basis that I have much less in common with them than with Christians (not to mention the fact that, whether consciously or not, they actually oppose the gospel)?
7. Are there other ways of measuring the health or success of a church – that is, other than the number of conversions? If so, what?
8. Is it true that all churches, if they are healthy, will keep growing in numbers? Or can a church hold steady in numerical terms but still be flourishing?
I’m asking all these as someone who is genuinely committed to building churches that preach the gospel, but has several questions about the way we read scripture and talk about these things as leaders (helped, I’m sure, by the cover of anonymity). So: any ideas?
There are lots of commands, laws, suggestions and guidelines in the Bible, some are primary, some are secondary, some are for all people at all times, others are time-and-place-specific (discuss…), and in the New Covenant we’re under grace not law anyhow, so how are we supposed to discern which rules are which, and to which we should pay most attention?
While reading James the other day, I stumbled across a verse which surprised me (and which set me off on this train of thought). It was chapter 5 verse 12:
But above all, my brothers, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath, but let your “yes” be yes and your “no” be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation.
In a book about faith and deeds, living together in community, persevering in trials, developing character, praying for the sick, pursuing wisdom, guarding your speech etc. etc. etc., James’ big take-home is ‘don’t swear oaths’? Some of the other ‘above alls’ in the Bible are translated differently in different versions, but every translation I have looked at for this verse renders it similarly: ‘above all’, ‘above all else’, ‘before all things’, ‘most of all’. It seems all the translators agree that James wanted this point to stand out.
A sermon I once heard on this verse said it implied that you should be living such an honest, truthful life, that you didn’t need to swear. Those around you would know that when you said ‘yes’, you meant ‘yes’, and when you said ‘no’ you meant ‘no’. Calling on some inanimate object to bear witness to your integrity would be unnecessary (not to say futile). Matthew Henry puts it like this:
It is being suspected of falsehood that leads men to swearing. Let it be known that your keep to truth, and are firm to your word, and by this means you will find there is no need to swear to what you say.
Well, OK, I get that as far as it goes, but it still sounds like a run-of-the-mill, common-or-garden commandment. Surely ‘be honest’ would have been a better ‘above all’, which would catch the swearing of oaths within it, and not make us extrapolate a general command to honesty back from the end result? (On the other hand, maybe James assumed we all knew we were supposed to be honest, but this was a practice that had slipped through the net.)
Matthew Henry’s commentary seems to read the verse as though it is talking more about using profanities than swearing oaths, which I understand to be quite different things, done in different circumstances for different purposes, but some of his comments are interesting (and applicable to either usage) nonetheless:
Why above all things is swearing here forbidden?
(1.) Because it strikes most directly at the honour of God and most expressly throws contempt upon his name and authority.
Wow. Yes, that is very true. If you’re thinking about swearing oaths, particularly “by heaven or by earth” (or, if you’re a Spanish swordsman in The Princess Bride, “on the soul of my father, Domingo Montoya”), you are calling on the created to be your witness – and your judge – rather than the creator, who will judge all things.
(2.) Because this sin has, of all sins, the least temptation to it: it is not gain, nor pleasure, nor reputation that can move men to it, but a wantonness in sinning, and a needless showing [of] enmity to God.
Interesting point. It’s a sin with no gain – in fact, with no up-side at all, and only downsides. Whether uttering profanities or swearing oaths, what possible purpose or benefit is there in doing it (other than fitting in with the culture around you, I suppose – so it is the sin of wanting to be like everyone else, and we know where that gets us!).
Point 3 I think is a fair one, but applies generally to the taming of the tongue passage earlier, and more to the use of profanity than the swearing of oaths, but point 4 I’m not sure I agree with at all (in my immensely superior wisdom!!), particularly the first part by Mr Baxter, whoever he might be, (underlined):
(3.) Because it is with most difficulty left off when once men are accustomed to it, therefore it should above all things be watched against. And, (4.) “Above all things swear not, for how can you expect the name of God should be a strong tower to you in your distress if you profane it and play with it at other times?” But (as Mr. Baxter observes) “
all this is so far from forbidding necessary oaths that it is but to confirm them, by preserving the due reverence of them
.” And then he further notes that “The true nature of an oath is, by our speech, to pawn the reputation of some certain or great thing, for the averring of a doubted less thing; and not (as is commonly held) an appeal to God or other judge.” Hence it was that swearing by the heavens, and by the earth, and by the other oaths the apostle refers to, came to be in use. The Jews thought if they did but omit the great oath of Chi-Eloah, they were safe. But they grew so profane as to swear by the creature, as if it were God; and so advanced it into the place of God; while, on the other hand, those who swear commonly and profanely by the name of God do hereby put him upon the level with every common thing.
I can’t see how you can read, from “do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath” the meaning “do not swear, except by God”. In fact, Baxter’s next sentence seems rather to undermine his point: “The true nature of an oath is, by our speech, to pawn the reputation of some certain or great thing, for the averring of a doubted less thing; and not (as is commonly held) an appeal to God or other judge.” Let’s rephrase the original to reflect that understanding of what ‘swear an oath’ means:
“But above all, my brothers, do not pawn the reputation of God for the averring of your word, but let your “yes” be yes and your “no” be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation.”
I think it would be fair to say that swearing by God is at least as likely to lead us to fall under condemnation as pawning the reputation of earth, and should probably be avoided!
What does that mean in court when we’re asked to swear on the Bible (or if you ever become US President)? I think if the option is open to us to ‘affirm’ that what we are saying is true instead, then that would be the most consistent approach with this command but if not, well, it seems that the reason given for not swearing an oath is, that you may not fall under condemnation – which presumably would only happen if you broke the oath, so if you are forced by the authorities God has placed over you to swear one, I guess you’d better take it very seriously!
I was going to look at the other ‘above alls’ in the Bible too, but this post has got rather long, so they may have to wait till another time. They were much more what I expected God to be telling me to focus on above all anyway. This one just intrigued me. What are your thoughts?
Materialists and Philistines
The new First Things is out today, and there's a super piece in it from David Bentley Hart, reflecting on the debate in the New Republic between Leon Wieseltier and Stephen Pinker. Hard materialism, Hart impishly suggests, is simply philistinism, and comparable to colour blindness:
There really are those out there for whom a poem or a sonata or a sculpture is nothing but an objectively ponderable collection of molecules processed through a series of electrochemical events in accord with certain neurobiological constants, all as determined by a vast set of wholly physical contingencies. There are those who think Plato’s allegory of the cave is little more than a defective attempt to explain the physical structure of the universe. And there are those who take the risible pseudoscience of evolutionary psychology seriously, and believe that every aspect of culture, cultural history, politics, religion, social convention, and so on is more or less wholly explicable in terms of beneficial evolutionary adaptations (if one can only dream up the right Just So story).
So Wieseltier is quite right to insist—as he should not need to do—that there are innumerable dimensions of cultural experience, exploration, and creativity that exist at levels of such formal complexity, and that are so rich in hermeneutical intricacy, and that demand from us such diverse modes of reflection, that they can never be reduced to any mere calculus of particulate physical causes. And he is certainly right to make a case for the rational integrity of the humanities, their necessary heterogeneity, their autonomy, their openness to one another, the endlessly new perspectives they call forth, and so on. But I should also point out that the only sort of person who would disagree with any of that is, quite simply, a philistine. A person whose sensibility is so obtuse and impoverished that he really believes that the only significant questions in life are questions of mass and force and neurological correlates and natural selection is no more likely to be persuaded to appreciate the special logic and dignity of humane learning than a congenitally color-blind person is likely to learn to appreciate the exquisite layerings of color in a Chardin or the chromatic choreographies in a Whistler.
A Calvinist in the Queue
A funny way of presenting an old paradox, from Mike Bird's Evangelical Theology:
A Calvinist arrives at St. Peter’s gates and sees that there are two queues going in. One is marked “predestined,” and the other is marked “free will.” Being the card-carrying Calvinist that he is, he strolls on over to the predestined queue. After several moments an angel asks him, “Why are you in this line?” He replies, “Because I chose it.” The angel looks surprised, “Well, if you ‘chose’ it, then you should be in the free will line.” So our Calvinist, now slightly miffed, obediently wanders over to the free will line. Again, after a few minutes, another angel asks him, “Why are you in this line?” He sullenly replies, “Someone made me come here.”
Wright on Why Theology Matters
Since we started this website, the words "theology matters" have appeared on the homepage (despite the fact that we have never actually called the blog that, which has been the source of much confusion, but that's another story). But we've never explained why theology matters, taking it somewhat for granted that it does, and that all our readers will also assume that it does. Well, very helpfully, Tom Wright has addressed that question in two quite superb paragraphs from his Paul and the Faithfulness of God, which I've been posting excerpts from over the last few Fridays. Here's his explanation:
Jewish writers have often commented that ‘theology’, as that word is now understood, is largely a Christian construct, and they are right, for just this reason: that a fresh, reflective understanding of God, the world, the human race, and so on grew and developed to fill the vacuum left by the departing symbols of Judaism. It had to if the new worldview was to have any staying power. It is no accident that we have seen, at the very moments when Paul is hammering out the nature of his new, symbolically freighted community, that he reaches for his reworked Jewish-style monotheism. It wasn’t just that he needed some doctrinal stiffening, and found that particu- lar doctrine useful for the task. Prayerful reflection on God, God’s ways, God’s work, God’s purpose, and ultimately God’s faithfulness – that task we loosely call ‘theology’ – had, quite suddenly, to take on a new role ...
‘Theology’ was not of course invented by the early Christians. We see it in the Psalms, prophets and wisdom traditions of ancient Israel. We see it, sometimes agonizingly, in the writers of the second-Temple period. We see it, in their own mode, in Plato, the Stoics, some of the great classical poets. But the Christian mode is not only different in content (christology, pneumatology, justification by faith, a fresh vision of ‘salvation’, the reformulation of eschatology and so on). It is different in the job it has to do, in the shape within the worldview which it has to fill. It is as though an instrument (the clarinet, say) which has been content until that point to let the strings and trumpets play the main tunes, and to fill in the harmony half way back in the orchestra, is suddenly called out and given a new, spectacular part, which bids fair to become the central motif for the whole performance. Paul’s radical reworking of the Jewish worldview for a global context was just such a moment, calling the sometimes shy, speculative, mystical and not very practical instrument called ‘theology’ to its feet, transforming the music into a concerto. This is, of course, why any attempt to understand Paul that begins by bracketing out ‘theology’ is doomed to failure, however many important points it may bring to our attention on the way.180 The reason we study Paul’s theology, I suggest, is that it has had to grow up quickly, to learn its new, complex, leading part within the music. Theology is the lifeblood of the ekklēsia, which is itself the central worldview-symbol. Without it – as any church will discover, to this day, if theology in general and Pauline theology in particular is ignored or marginalized! – the chance of the central worldview-symbol standing upright and supporting the rest of the building will be severely decreased.
Piper on Prophecy
Even by John Piper's standards, this is impressive. In seven minutes, he very gently and fairly debunks the cessationist view of prophecy, and argues for the continuation of the gift today. It's a model of how to respond to claims like those of John MacArthur: careful, patient biblical analysis, and no inflammatory rhetoric (avoiding, for instance, the word "debunks" or any of its cognates or synonyms). You can listen to it here.
His first argument is that the language of 1 Thessalonians 5:19-21 concerns the testing of prophecies, rather than prophets, and warns against the danger of “despising” prophecies - which, Piper argues, would only be necessary if (a) individuals prophesied a mixture of true and false, and (b) prophecies were occasionally “wacko”. His second is a challenge to complementarian cessationists: if New Testament prophecy was authoritative and infallible, and if women were not to teach or have authority over men in the New Testament church, then why would Paul allow women to prophesy in the church (1 Cor 11:2-16)? This clearly implies that not all New Testament prophecy was of the infallible, authoritatively binding, Scripture-level variety. His third is the clincher, based on 1 Corinthians 13:8-12 - Paul says that we prophesy ek merous, for now, in contrast to the time when prophecies will cease, when “the perfect comes” (which, in the context, is clearly the return of Christ). Consequently, Paul’s instruction to “eagerly desire to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in languages” (1 Cor 14:39) is for today, and should be obeyed.
Once, there was an ordinary, young Christian girl called Sophie. One night, in the witching hour, that period of the night when nobody else is awake, she was looking out of her window, and she saw an enormous book, twenty-four feet high, creeping silently through the streets of London and throwing dreams in through people's windows. She was spellbound. Transfixed by the book's cleverness, its ability to drop ideas and thoughts into people's minds, and above all its astonishing size, she kept staring at it - until it suddenly noticed her, strode across the street, stifled her scream, swept her out of her bedroom window, and carried her off to a faraway land. Sophie's life was about to change forever. She had encountered the PFG.
Initially, she was understandably scared of her new acquaintance. He was unfeasibly big - at sixteen hundred pages, his bibliography alone was larger than many books - with an acute sense of hearing, which translated into an uncanny ability to know what was going on everywhere in his field. His unique gift, it emerged, was the ability to store thoughts in bottles, put them in his net, and cleverly throw them into the minds of unsuspecting people, who would immediately think like he wanted them to but without knowing why. But as Sophie got to know him, she found that he seemed to operate unlike every other book she had met, combining his enormous size, knowledge and capacity to influence with an unusual vocabulary, including whimsical words and ideas she had never heard before, and a kindly, avuncular manner which belied his otherwise intimidating stature. He was a giant, and a big one at that, but Sophie couldn’t help feeling that he was somehow a friendly giant.
When they finally reached the faraway land, Sophie concluded her instinct was right, and she was dealing with one of the good guys after all. In her world, where all the books were two hundred pages or so, the PFG was a frightening behemoth with some freakish characteristics who would certainly scare people; but in the context of his own world, surrounded by even bigger creatures of terrifying proportions - they would sit around ripping up, and then eating, Christian men and women, and had names like “the Bloodbottler” and “the Sarxlumpeater” - he was accessible, kind, and not even especially large. One day she asked him how, surrounded by such monstrosities, he had become such a gentle giant, albeit one with some unsettling quirks; he replied, rather mysteriously, that he had studied at Oxford while drinking George’s Marvellous Medicine, and then had developed his ideas alongside someone he called Dunny the Champion of the World. Sophie nodded.
In many ways, Sophie discovered, the PFG was very much like her, and like the ordinary Christians she knew back home; it was just that he did everything on a much bigger scale, as if implicitly in dialogue with the other giants, rather than ordinary people. For instance, whereas in Sophie’s world books said “God is three persons: Father, Son and Spirit”, the PFG would say, “Paul continued to hold to second-temple monotheism, but his monotheism was freshly reworked in the light of Jesus and the divine spirit.” In Sophie’s world, people referred to Jesus as “Christ” and “Messiah” interchangeably, without seeing the need to defend it; the PFG had dozens of pages explaining why that was appropriate, and why the other giants (most of whom disagreed with him) were wrong. At times, it seemed to Sophie that the PFG enjoyed making things difficult. But the PFG reassured her that, though it sometimes looked that way, the complexity was necessary. After all, there were giants in the land, whether they turned up in Sophie’s world or not.
There were a few thoughts, safely stored in their bottles, that the PFG felt especially proud of. He showed them to Sophie one day, and explained that he very much wanted to throw them into the minds of the giants while they were asleep. One was marked “Yahweh’s return to Zion”, which (he said) was perhaps the best argument for Paul’s christological monotheism. Another was marked “Election in the Messiah”, which was all about showing how Jesus, as Israel’s representative, fulfilled what Israel was always supposed to do, and incorporated all of God’s people in himself. Another said, “The Spirit in Justification”, which surprised Sophie enormously, since she had always assumed the Spirit and justification would be in different bottles. These, the PFG confided, were the game-changers, the ones which would bring nightmares (or “trogglehumpers”) to the rest of the giants if they ever got out of their bottles. Ideas can be like that sometimes, he said.
There were times when Sophie disagreed with the PFG, of course. She loved much of what he affirmed about justification and imputation, but was unpersuaded by some of the things he denied. She giggled sometimes at the tangle he got himself into with certain passages, like Romans 4 and 2 Corinthians 5. From time to time, he would see something in a text that Sophie couldn’t see herself (things like “covenant” and “exodus” and one or two others), and she wasn’t sure whether it was his imagination or her eyesight that wasn’t working. And the way he explained what other books said made her a bit hesitant, because she didn’t always recognise the descriptions of books that she had read herself. But overall, she loved the PFG, and was very glad she had met him. Somehow, Sophie felt, he had helped her see that giants were nothing to be afraid of.
When the day came for her to finally say goodbye to the PFG, Sophie had mixed feelings. She was somewhat sad to be leaving her new-found friend, but she was also pleased to be going back to the world of normally sized books, and looked forward to seeing how all the PFG’s ideas worked out in her normal life. When she explained to her parents what had happened, and what sorts of things took place in the land of the giants, they said - perhaps unsurprisingly - that they found it hard to believe her. But they did remark that they thought Sophie looked taller.
Sanders on Paul’s Life
It's encouraging to read this from Ed Sanders, one of the most influential Pauline scholars of the last fifty years. Even academics must admit that Paul, despite his brilliance, was fundamentally an apostle more than a systematic theologian:
Paul spent years of his life on the road, carrying (presumably on pack animals) his tent, clothing and tools – not many scrolls, if any. He carried the Bible safely tucked away in his head, where it belongs. As an apostle, he often supported himself by plying his trade. He was busy, traveling, working with his hands, winning people for Christ, shepherding or coping with his converts, responding to questions and problems. And he was very human; he knew not only fighting without but also fears within (2 Cor. 7:5). Paul the completely confident academic and systematic theologian – sitting at his desk, studying the Bible, working out a system, perfect and consistent in all its parts, unchanging over a period of thirty years, no matter how many new experiences he and his churches had – is an almost inhuman character, either a thinking machine or the fourth person of the Trinity. The real Paul knew anger, joy, depression, triumph, and anguish; he reacted, he overreacted, he repented, he apologized, he flattered and cajoled, he rebuked and threatened, he argued this way and that way: he did everything he could think of in order to win some.
(Quoted in Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God).
What is Culture?
I don't know whether Tom Wright has been reading Andy Crouch recently, but it sure looks like it. Here's a brilliant paragraph on what "culture" is, from Paul and the Faithfulness of God (the Crouch giveaway is when he mentions the iPhone):
“I take this loose but important word to denote those aspects of shared human life which draw together narrative, praxis and symbol in particular patterns, often forming new stories which reflect parts of the underlying ones (as in many plays, novels, movies, soap operas and so on), often producing artefacts which themselves become symbols of a certain way of life (the fish-knife, the credit card, the iPhone), and often producing works of art and music which live in the spaces between story, praxis and symbol and which, as though from a different dimension, give people both a sense of the overall worldview and, quite often, a sense of its own deep internal problems and difficulties. That, perhaps, is one of the most important features of culture: to bring to expression beliefs and perceptions which are either reinforcements of the prevailing worldview or questions and challenges from within it, in a language which is precisely not that of articulate speech. Even when words are set to music, the music normally makes them ‘say’ and ‘mean’ something much more than they say and mean by themselves, whether these words are ‘There were shepherds abiding in the field’ or ‘Can’t take my eyes off of you’. ‘Culture’ thus nests within the worldview model in another dimension which draws together story, praxis and symbol in particular.”
Rap God: Some Musings on Idolatry and Celebrity
“Rappers have a tendency to be a little on the arrogant side” is hardly a controversial claim! A music genre whose dominant themes are so often money, sex and reputation, is hardly likely to produce shy, retiring and humble practitioners. Certainly some of the most prominent artists are masters of controversy and thrive by trying to shock listeners through outlandish declarations.
But I’ve been struck recently by the prominence of the Messiah Complex in rap music. Again, it’s nothing new. What rapper hasn’t had themselves depicted on a cross at some point: think Tupac, P. Diddy, Nas… and so on. It has often been noted that rappers – of all faiths and, more often, none – seem to hold an affinity for Jesus, since they tend to consider themselves so similar; the misunderstood, the marginalised, the oppressed, the people tasked with speaking truth to power and being publicly berated for doing so.
Let me point out – though I’m sure it hardly needs saying – I’m no expert on rap music, being a middle-class white-kid from Kent! But I have some appreciation for the genre and I try to give at least one spin to the latest releases from the most prominent artists; particularly those who generate conversation and manage to express deeply-felt needs in our culture. I don’t always like what I hear, but I find it helpful to hear it at least once.
So I’ve found it striking just how frequently the claim of ‘being a god’ has emerged in the albums I’ve listened to of late. Both Kanye West and Jay-Z have made it the dominant theme of their latest albums, and although Eminem’s album isn’t out yet, it’s certainly the theme of his most recent single. Which raises some interesting questions.
Kanye West’s latest album Yeezus came out in June and was the next logical step in a years-long trajectory. In 2005 he declared that ‘Jesus walks with me’ in a song that I distinctly remember being cited, if not played, at various Christian events… the censored radio edit of course! A catchy song depicting brokenness and humanity and an honest brand of faith that’s not straightforward. But as many people have pointed out, the essential claim of the track was that Jesus walks with Kanye, not the other way round.
In 2006 Rolling Stone helped him deepen his Messiah complex with their infamous The Passion of Kanye West cover art. The great-misunderstood rapper found affinity with the crucified Christ. Misunderstood. Mistreated. Hmm…
So an album named Yeezus with a track entitled I am a God is no great unexpected leap. Nor is his stunt of bringing a Jesus lookalike onstage during his latest tour. Though to be fair to Kanye, what he’s trying to do appears to be a little more complex than a straight up claim to divinity. Some have even gone so far as to claim that Kanye has a very biblical understanding of what it means to be made in the image of God. Not sure I’m ready to go that far, but the lyrics are interesting:
“I am a god
Even though I’m a man of God
My whole life in the hands of God
So y’all quit playing with God.”
“I just talked to Jesus
He said, “What up Yeezus?”
I said, “S*** I’m chilling,
Trying to stack these millions”
I know he the most high
But I am a close high
Mi casa, su casa
That’s our cosa nostra
I am a god.”
This is a guy who is wrestling with his place in creation alongside men and deities and he has claimed for himself a godlike status, even if he’s resisted claiming a Godlike one. Capitals make all the difference… apparently.
I must confess to being slightly sympathetic towards Kanye, who in his inimitably-ill-advised way is at least trying to grapple with the questions of celebrity and idolatry in a provocative manner (whilst still indulging in all the luxury of godness, of course!!) His lyrics are reminiscent of Psalm 82:6: ‘You are “gods”; you are all sons of the Most High.’ And in a perverse kind of way, Kanye demonstrates a weird sort of humility. In a world where he is undoubtedly treated like a God by his adoring fans, he still claims only to be a lowercase god.
This ‘humility’, such as it is, is far less evident in Jay-Z’s album, Magna Carta… Holy Grail. To be fair to Mr Z, to my knowledge he doesn’t claim to be a person of faith, and he has been happy to push the blasphemy envelope throughout his career, whether through adopting the nickname ‘Jay-Hovah’, or calling out God through his lyrics and interviews.
Magna Carta… Holy Grail is not (in my opinion) even a remotely good album. Musically it’s nowhere near as strong as his earlier work, and lyrically his use of biblical imagery is sloppy and hackneyed. Tracks like Heaven come across as a ham-fisted hash of religious concepts, designed to shock rather than to make any particularly deep comment: God is his chauffeur; he’s God in the flesh; the arena is a church; he transcends mere preachers to become a prophet; icons and images are used for consumption – he drinks from a gold chalice and smokes the tree of knowledge… It’s all just a bit pompous, and so it’s no real surprise when on Crown he says,
“You in the presence of a king,
Scratch that, you in the presence of a god.”
And that brings me to the new Eminem track, Rap God. The title gives us a fairly unsubtle hint as to where the song’s going to go, and in the repeated refrain “I’m beginning to feel like a Rap God, Rap God” the most surprising word is ‘beginning’! His track closes with a sentiment similar to that of Jay-Z (and indeed the ruler of Tyre in Ezekiel 28):
“Be a king? Think not.
Why be a king, when you can be a God?”
Many people are expressing shock and outrage at the idolatry of all three rappers. I yawn. It’s nothing new and it has ceased to be outrageous, if I can say that without implying that familiarity makes the idolatry any less egregious. It’s all a little pompous and predictable and I’ve ceased to be surprised by it. But it’s caused me to ponder a few questions:
Firstly, leaving aside the God-stuff, all three artists continue to reinforce toxic stereotypes and promulgate misogyny. In Eminem’s case, he uses lyrics that are downright homophobic and deeply offensive. Is this what you get to do when you’re a g/God? Make wild pronouncements that fly in the face of common decency?
Coupled with that, all three offerings are less-sonically pleasing than any of their earlier work. Kanye sees himself as a music-prophet, pushing the boundaries of sound; Jay-Z’s album is a dull and gimmick-laden, zeitgeist-y affair that I’m sure will soon be outdated and (hopefully) forgotten; and Eminem’s track is technically proficient, but really very boring. There seems to be some kind of quality-to-genius ratio going on. Godlike status allows you to settle for lazy musicianship. You reach a point where you can do what you like, even if what you like to do is awful. And people eat it up.
I wonder how this all shapes people’s idea of what it is to be a ‘g/God’? Is that what people imagine deity entails? Making angry, irrelevant or culturally-offensive pronouncements? Just doing what you want, how you want, whether or not it’s good, true or beautiful, because you have the power and resources and couldn’t care less about human concepts of fairness or decency? Where did that perception come from? And why is this something to aspire to?
Secondly, all three rappers are grappling with the question of how they respond to the adoration of their fans, who treat them like gods. Whilst each of these artists is responsible for the words that come out of their mouths and the sometimes-blasphemous sentiments they contain, I wonder who is to blame for this idol-making? I think it’s unfair to lay the blame wholly at their door whilst we persist in a culture of idolising celebrity through our art, media, merchandise and reality shows. We long for gods because we’ve dethroned God. Is this not a form of Feuerbachian wish-fulfilment in a modern materialistic guise?
And I wonder if it isn’t also a product of idol-boredom. We get tired of worshipping insubstantial things, and since we imagine that there is nothing greater for us to worship – no true divine figure – we simply upgrade the terminology we use for our idols. There was a time when Elvis’ claim to be the King was enough for us… Scratch that. Why worship a king, when you can worship a god?
Acts 12:21-23 is an interesting passage to reflect on. Herod enthroned himself as King and delivered a speech and the crowd declared, “This is the voice of a god, not of a man.” One could say that the crowd were the idol-makers and they were to blame. But because Herod didn’t correct them or give the glory to God, he was punished. There is an interesting interplay between the idol-maker and the idol. Both are guilty, but the idol may pay the price for not channelling his fans’ adoration correctly.
All of which makes me realise just how complex a thing celebrity is. And some genres of celebrity are even more complex than others. How one ought to steward their gift and privilege within this kind of profession is not an easy question to answer. In a world that places such stock in possessions, status and controversy, the path between idolatry and celebrity is a tricky one to walk.
And that is just one of many reasons why you won’t see me emceeing any time soon…
AJW and the BMI of PFG by NTW
Once again the prolific A.J. Wilson has demonstrated his astonishing ability to speed-read, producing a review of Wright’s latest epic, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, a mere fortnight after its publication date. I must confess, however, that I am slightly concerned Wilson’s expeditiousness may have left us with a sub-standard review. My concerns are threefold:
Firstly, am I really supposed to believe that Andrew did in fact read the entire thing, rather than just skim the chapter headings and guess what might be contained within? He has produced a review at such pace as to resemble the scholarly equivalent of a kid who wolfs down his dinner simply so he can declare smugly to his siblings “I finished first!”
Secondly, since Andrew also reviewed Mark Driscoll’s book this week, am I to assume he read the two simultaneously? And might that not have impaired his critical faculties? What if he accidentally attributed aphorisms to Wright that belonged to Driscoll? Or the other way round? How am I to tell whether natty phrases like, “Jesus, could you please rapture the charismaniac lady who brings her tambourine to church?” came from the pen of the Bearded Bishop or the Scrappy Seattleite?
But thirdly, the question Mr Wilson totally failed to address in his review, which I’m sure we’re all dying to have answered, is this: how much does Paul and the Faithfulness of God actually weigh?
N.T. Wright has been one of the most significant contributors to the growing epidemic of book obesity! Each of his books is larger than the last and every one threatens to burst at the seams.
The Christian Origins and the Question of God series kicked off in 1992 with The New Testament and the People of God, which weighed in at a hefty 855g. As if that wasn’t heavy enough, it was soon followed by the 1168g Jesus and the Victory of God and topped 7 years later by The Resurrection of the Son of God, which measured a shelf-bending 1287g. Today I’ve read roughly half-a-dozen reviews of Wright’s latest tome and am still none the wiser as to how its weight compares to the previous volumes!
Size can be deceptive. Some books are extremely heavy, but every-inch muscle, whilst others may look just slightly chubby on the outside, but really be morbidly obese. There has to be a way of discerning the BMI of a book.
So in honour of Tom’s obsession with full-fat, supersized-theology, I would like to propose a new approach to book reviews, which follows the conventions of the UK Front-Of-Pack nutrition wheels. As in shopping, so in reading. At a glance, the reader will be able to tell from the pie chart on the book cover what balance of content they should anticipate. How many grams of edification per 100 page serving, if you will.
In my new approach to reviewing, a traffic light scheme indicates the healthy balance on any given subject. For example, a bright red ‘eschatology’ wedge indicates a fatty, over-realised, view of the kingdom. An orange ‘justification’ wedge lets the reader know that the author is trying to find a middle ground between Protestant (green) and Catholic (red) approaches to salvation by faith and/or works. And so on.
No doubt it will take a little while to iron out the particulars of the scheme, and critics will complain that my colour-choices simply reflect my own theological bias. But all ideas must begin somewhere. So may I request that Andrew re-writes his review adopting my new conventions, so that we can tell whether Wright’s work is not only worth the wait, but also worth the weight.
Series: Paul and the Faithfulness of God
Where lesser mortals may have balked at even the weight, let alone the weightiness of NT Wright's latest work, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, Andrew has not only read but reviewed it, and chosen multiple selections to feature on this blog.
To see all our previous series’, follow this link.
A Review of Tom Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God (Book I)
Whatever you think of him, Tom Wright is a force of nature. I'll save you the premature eulogy here, but suffice it to say that his scholarly output will be shaping discussions for decades to come, long after most of today's academic intramurals and evangelical hot debates have been forgotten. That makes it significant, for all but the theological cave-dwellers among us, that perhaps his most important work - it's on his favourite subject, it's probably his most comprehensive book, and at sixteen hundred pages it's certainly his longest - has just been released: Paul and the Faithfulness of God. Books of this significance don't come along very often, so I thought a summary and review would be in order. Plus, how many people are going to read the whole of a sixteen hundred page book anyway?
It’s actually two books. The first and shorter volume, which I’ll cover in this post, covers Paul and his world (part I), and Paul’s apostolic mindset (part II); the second and longer volume, which I’ll look at in due course, contains the load-bearing section on Paul’s theology (part III), and concludes by looking at Paul in history (part IV). For a book of its size, it is admirably navigable and clearly laid out, as well as being written in a style that is lucid, creative (such as using birds as a way of contrasting the Jewish, Greek and Roman worlds), often humorous, and occasionally risqué (who else would get away with calling a chapter on Roman religion “A Cock for Asclepius”?) The combination of these makes it easy to read, even when the argument is dense or the source materials are unfamiliar.
The first book, which in many ways is an extended ground-clearing exercise, begins with a chapter on the least known and probably least read Pauline epistle, Philemon. Wright contrasts it with an epistle of Pliny, and shows that despite their superficial similarities, the two letters breathe different air; Paul’s instructions to Philemon demonstrate that a shocking degree of social realignment has taken place as a result of the gospel, and would make us wonder, even if we had no other Pauline letter to draw on, what on earth had happened to precipitate this. This propels us forward into a superb discussion of imputation, based on Philemon 17-20, and then, in familiarly whimsical fashion, Wright turns the slightly puzzling backstory to the letter into a parable, casting history as the runaway Onesimus, theology as Philemon, and Paul (or is it Wright himself?) as the one trying to reconcile the two. The discussion of sources, complete with a robust defence of the Pauline authorship of Ephesians and Colossians, round off a superb opening chapter that everyone who ever intends to preach on Philemon would do well to read.
The next four chapters, I suspect, will be of slightly less interest to most preachers and pastors, but will fascinate those who want to know a bit more ancient history, and prove peerlessly helpful to those studying the relationship between the New Testament and the ancient world. Wright puts Paul firmly in his historical context: that of second-temple Judaism, and Pharisaism in particular (chapter 2), of Greek philosophy (chapter 3), of Greco-Roman culture and “religion” (chapter 4), and of the Roman Empire and its emperors (chapter 5). As ever, there are some wonderfully creative moments, like the use of emblematic birds (birds circling overhead for Israel’s prophetic history, Athene’s owl for philosophy, a cock for Asclepius for Roman religion, and the imperial eagle), and some nuanced treatments of complex issues, like the sketch of the imperial not-quite-cult, and the summary of the four main branches of Hellenistic philosophy (the Academy, the Lyceum, Epicureanism and Stoicism). But in essence, Wright’s argument in this part is fairly simple. Paul needs to be understood against all of these backgrounds - Greek, Jewish and Roman, imperial and local, philosophical and cultural - but primarily, he is a second-temple Jew, and a Pharisee at that.
In the second part, the argument takes a form that will be familiar to readers of two previous volumes in this series, The New Testament and the People of God and Jesus and the Victory of God. Wright has repeatedly contended that we can understand people’s worldviews by looking at four different elements - symbols, praxis, stories and questions - so it is no surprise that he applies this method to Paul. In Paul’s writings, virtually all major Jewish symbols and praxis, including Temple, land, Torah, food, circumcision and (most controversially) even Sabbath, appear to have been transformed in the light of Jesus the Messiah (chapter 6). The story he is assuming, even when he isn’t narrating it explicitly, is a three-layered story about (1) God’s plan for the world through humans, (2) God’s plan for humans (and thus the world) through Israel, and (3) God’s plan for Israel (and thus humans, and thus the world) through Jesus (chapter 7). His implicit answers to Kipling’s “serving men” questions - what, why, when, how, where and who - confirm the essential Jewishness of his outlook, especially when it comes to the crucial question “what time is it?” (chapter 8). Each of these chapters is helpful, but the middle one stands above the others as a titanic exposition of Paul’s big story. To be honest, at the risk of being called a fawning teenager by Phil Moore, I doubt I have ever seen such a clear diagrammatic exposition of biblical theology as I encountered on page 521 (see the image above).
So that’s the first book. In a nutshell: Paul lived, spoke and thought in a way that only makes sense if we see him as a Pharisee who thought Israel’s history had come to its decisive climax in Jesus the Messiah, and whose defining story was about God’s plan to rescue the world through humans, through Israel, through Jesus. Admittedly, that summary makes it sound exactly like every other book Tom Wright has written, and there’s a very real sense in which that’s the case. But it is still worth reading. For those who are still sceptical of this summary, either because they’re worried by what he says about justification or because they’re haunted by some version of John Barclay’s question at BNTC, there’s a huge amount of backup here; for those who already accept it, there’s a wealth of insight on the ancient world and the biblical story that will add depth and colour to your view of the scriptures; and for those who are Wright fans, there’s all the stuff you’d expect in here, with a few surprises thrown in. I’m using the next few Fridays to quote some excerpts, which I hope will give you a flavour.
The only people who will be disappointed, I suspect, will be those who expect a Tom Wright book as opposed to an N T Wright one - the bibliography runs to seventy pages, and none of the chapters begin with stories about garden parties, flat tyres or cricket matches - or, on the other hand, those who want to pick a fight about justification or imputation, since they are barely mentioned in Book I (and in the one place they are, Wright sounds remarkably like the Reformers). For the former, there is no remedy, other than perhaps listening to his first two sessions at the THINK conference. For the latter, happily, there will be plenty of time for that when it comes to Book II. Watch this space!
A Rather Confusing “Call to Resurgence”
Mark Driscoll’s new book, A Call to Resurgence: Will Christianity Have a Funeral or a Future?, is sometimes insightful, sometimes amusing, sometimes stirring, and sometimes exasperating. In places, particularly at the beginning and the end of the book, it represents the best of Driscoll: an uncompromising assessment of the scale of the mission, a robust call to courage and obedience, and an impassioned plea for sound doctrine, spiritual power, and sacrificial mission. At the book’s heart, however, is an internal tension so significant that large parts of it are likely to be ineffective, or even counterproductive, in persuading those who do not already share Driscoll’s view. Consequently—and I say this as a broadly Reformed, complementarian, charismatic, missional pastor—A Call to Resurgence is somewhat frustrating to read.
The book is clearly laid out, and its contents can be easily summarized. American society is in a terrible mess: Christendom is over, and the results aren’t pretty (chapter one). The American church is also in a terrible mess, with weird spiritualities, sexual sin, fluffy pluralism, immature masculinity, and financial stinginess creeping into her through the surrounding culture (chapter two). Not only that, but she is also divided into tribes that may barely know each other: Reformed and Arminian, complementarian and egalitarian, continuationist and cessationist, fundamentalist and missional (chapter three). There is, however, a solution, which is to work together with other Christians who are united with us on primary issues, despite the tribal disagreements we may have over secondary issues (chapter four). As we do so, we need to continue being empowered by the Holy Spirit (chapter five), calling people to repentance as biblically defined (chapter six), and committing ourselves to mission: preaching, loving, contextualizing, evangelizing, engaging culture, serving, and suffering (chapter seven). Two appendices summarize the history of the church (appendix A) and offer some helpful resources on the areas of theological disagreement (appendix B).
As we have come to expect from Driscoll, the book is filled with pithy one-liners, inspiring stories, clarifying illustrations, and laugh-out-loud moments. He uses to good effect the key analogy in his central chapter about unity. The limits of Christian orthodoxy are like a national border, whereas your denominational tribe is like a state, and your church and your family like a street address. Several of the stories from Mars Hill Church, where Driscoll pastors, are both illuminating and deeply moving. Aphorisms like “love wins; God loses” (23), “contextualization is about showing the relevance of the gospel, not making the gospel relevant” (226), and “young people tend to get excited about causes more than they do churches” (79) display his gift for communicating crisply and powerfully. What’s more, the passionate desire that clearly runs through the book, namely the call for young men (particularly) to lay down their lives for courageous, contextualized, gospel proclamation, is one of the most important things you could ever write a book about. So there is much to commend.
At the centre of the book, however, is an unresolved tension that threatens to scuttle the whole volume. On one hand, Driscoll insists that, in order to pursue “resurgence,” the various tribes in contemporary evangelicalism need to unite around the gospel, choose our battles wisely, and allow all sorts of disagreement over non-essential matters (116). The tribes that he, John Piper, Bill Hybels, Steven Furtick, John MacArthur, Joel Osteen, Stanley Hauerwas, Scot McKnight, Andy Stanley, T. D. Jakes, Joyce Meyer, and Albert Mohler represent all agree on the non-negotiables of evangelicalism (95-96 and following)—an observation I suspect will astonish some of these leaders!—and we should understand each other’s tribal preferences without making everything a divisive issue (117-123). On the other hand, in the next chapter he draws what he calls the “border issues for biblically faithful and culturally missional Christianity” in such a way as to privilege Reformed, complementarian, continuationist, missionals—that is, people like him (and, as it happens, me)—and defines evangelicalism in a way that excludes huge numbers of professing evangelicals (122-136). So, for instance, the “border issues for biblically faithful and culturally missional Christianity” include believing in biblical inerrancy (125), an originally perfect world (127), an Augustinian view of original sin (128), the centrality of penal substitutionary atonement (130-131), a Reformed view of justification (132), the idea that all Christians are missionaries (133), and the conferring of spiritual gifts at regeneration (135). I’m not certain how many of the tribal leaders he mentions in chapter three could affirm all of those views, but I suspect it would be a small minority. I know I couldn’t.
The result is confusing. Should those who seek “resurgence” continue to insist on and contend for the things Driscoll regards as “border issues,” or shouldn’t they? When (say) Tom Wright is checked at the border, should he be greeted with a “welcome to America” as a fellow big-tent evangelical, or should he be sent back to Heathrow for his views on Scripture, sin, justification, and the atonement? Would C. S. Lewis make it past Homeland Security? Would McKnight, or Shane Claiborne, or Roger Olson? And on what basis do we call something a “border issue” in the first place? Rather than defining the boundaries by Nicene or Chalcedonian orthodoxy, the Great Tradition, the historic confessions, or an ecumenical “mere Christianity,” Driscoll has created his own list of affirmations, based on the evangelical intramurals du jour. He is perfectly entitled to do so, of course, if he’s offering a personal set of convictions, or listing the values that characterize his church and his network. But in a book that makes much of the need to bring tribes together, this idiosyncratic list is puzzling.
None of this is to say Driscoll’s goals here—pursuing unity on the one hand while defending essential doctrine on the other—are unnecessary or irreconcilable. This tension is healthy and should be embraced, not avoided. All of us, whether church leaders or not, are called to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace, to speak the truth to one another in love, and to contend for the faith delivered once for all to the saints. Rather, it is to say Driscoll’s way of pursuing them, both in the issues he identifies as “border issues” and in the way he represents other beliefs and practices (see below), is unlikely to be successful. Unless I am misreading him, he draws the borders in such a way as to exclude a great many Protestant (not to mention Catholic and Orthodox) Christians who disagree with him about Scripture, the atonement, sin, mission, and salvation (122-136), while simultaneously implying that the apparently heterodox Trinitarian theology of T. D. Jakes or the prosperity theology of Joyce Meyer are merely tribal variations or preferences that are not non-negotiable (95-96). If Joel Osteen agrees with you on the non-negotiables but your national borders exclude Athanasius, then some more work on the relationship between unity and truth is probably needed. Many groups of Christians have hammered out “borders” before, from Nicea onwards, and to my mind they’ve done so more carefully, and hence more effectively, than Driscoll does here.
There are some other significant problems, related to the way Driscoll represents other beliefs. The sketch of Arminianism, especially the Articles of Remonstrance, is inaccurate (98). The bomb-shelter description of fundamentalism (108-109) sits uneasily with the examples of fundamentalists given elsewhere, which include Mark Dever, Kevin DeYoung, Greg Gilbert, 9Marks, and Newfrontiers (see chart on 112-113 and bibliography on 308). I imagine this label will be a surprise to all of them when the book is published (as it was to me, given that I pastor in a Newfrontiers church). Such unrepresentative and ahistorical labels do nobody any good, especially in a book urging greater ecumenical collaboration. The discussion of tongues drives an exegetically implausible wedge between the nature of the private and public gift at Corinth (165-166), and thus muddles further an already complex debate. The discussion of contemporary Christianity in America excessively relies on John Dickerson’s version, and ignores alternative perspectives like those of Bradley Wright, John Micklethwait, and Adrian Wooldridge (chapters one and two). And the appendix summarizing church history begins at the Reformation and effectively tells the backstory of modern American evangelicalism, leading to the remarkable comment that “a healthy movement does not debate doctrines such as the atonement, the Bible, heaven and hell” (285). No doubt church historians will be surprised. If a genuine confluence of different tribes within evangelicalism is to happen—which I hope and pray it will!—I suspect it will require the leaders among us to know more about what other tribes believe, and more about the history of the global church as a whole, than can be found in this volume.
Mark Driscoll has been a huge encouragement and provocation to me personally, and I have benefited enormously from his bombastic and courageous approach to biblical truth, church leadership, and personal mission. I also agree with an awful lot of what he is saying in A Call to Resurgence, not least the importance of contending for the truth while working hard to pursue unity in the gospel. But in my view, the flaws in the central chapters of the book—which I read as critical given what he is trying to do—are significant enough to spoil it. Maybe read A Call to Spiritual Reformation instead.
The original version of this article appeared at The Gospel Coalition website.
Wright on Religion in the Ancient World
This is such an insightful warning against anachronism on the whole question of ancient "religion" - for which, as has often been pointed out, there was no Greek word - from Tom Wright in Paul and the Faithfulness of God:
“There was thus a sphere of activity, right across the ancient world, which implied and symbolized a tangled network of beliefs, traditions, expectations and (not least) a sense of civic identity and security. We need a word, however loose its meaning and however heuristic its use, to denote this sphere of activity and the thought-patterns which it implied and embodied. ‘Cult’ is too narrowly specific, and again (see below) likely to mislead in today’s world; it would, I think, fail to catch the virtually universal sense, throughout Mediterranean antiquity, of divine presences, purposes, warnings and encouragements. A world full of gods generated a human life full of ... well, let us go on calling it ‘religion’ for the moment. Did the lightning strike to the left or the right of the path? Did you remember to offer a sacrifice to Poseidon before you got on board the ship? Hope you enjoy the meal; this splendid beef was from a sacrifice in the temple down the street, so it comes with a special blessing. How were the planets aligned on the night you were born? Don’t forget the festival tomorrow; everyone will be there, and the neighbours will notice if you don’t show up. Have you heard that Augustus has now become Pontifex Maximus? I know I was due to arrive yesterday, but some god must have had it in for me, or perhaps someone put a curse on me; the roads were all blocked. Don’t you like the new temple in the city square? Isn’t it good that they’ve reorganized the streets so you can see it from every angle! My nephew tells me he’s been initiated into this new cult from the East; he says he’s died and been reborn, though I can’t see much difference. Oh, and don’t forget; we owe a cock to Asclepius. This is not philosophy, though the philosophers regularly talk about it. Nor is it politics as such, though the fact that leading officers of state regularly doubled as the priests of local shrines demonstrates that the two were fully and firmly intertwined. We could call it ‘superstition’, but the sneer that the Latin superstitio already possessed in Paul’s day has been so accentuated in modern usage that any kind of emic account would become impossible. Call it ‘religion’; and judge not, lest we be judged.”
Halloween: Too Harrowing to Handle?
It's that time of the year again, when British Christians get all in a lather about Halloween, and our American cousins...don't.
Though they are traditionally more conservative on many issues, particularly those surrounding good and evil, and how we should engage with or avoid ‘the world’ and its wiles, I was amazed to discover, when first I got to know some Americans, that, in general, they don’t bat an eyelid when it comes to celebrating Halloween, and will dress up, go trick-or-treating and carve pumpkins with the best of them.
We Brits, on the other hand, tend to fear the festival, and can’t decide whether to lock the doors and hide from it, or hold ‘Hallelujah Parties’ so the kids can still get their sugar fix but without having to celebrate evil in the process.
I sound more snide than I mean to be. I think any occasion which encourages the church to throw open its doors, invite the neighbours in and celebrate God’s goodness with them can only be a good thing. I’m just trying to point up the anomalies.
Many of my Christian friends in America were genuinely surprised when I first told them Christians don’t celebrate Halloween in the UK. It had simply never crossed their minds that they were partaking in the glorification of evil. It was just good, clean fun to them. Some, once they thought it through, decided they too would stop. Others, equally thoughtful, decided to continue.
So is it an evil we should stand on street corners and rail against? An ancient feast day whose meaning everyone has forgotten so we can turn a blind eye to it? The eve of the celebration of the light that has conquered all darkness once and for all?
I’m not sure I have any answers. But I have some resources that you may find helpful in helping you think through the issues and work out where you stand.
First, there’s this article, written by Matthew Hosier for the Evangelical Alliance earlier this year. Then there’s this one, written by J John and posted recently on God and Politics. And last, but by no means least, there this video from Glen Scrivener.
I know we featured that in our ‘Best of the Rest’ recently, but it gives me chills every time. One thing I have noticed when thinking/reading/talking about Halloween is that I come away focussing on the event, and the problems, and the worry. When I watch this video, I come away with my eyes filled with tears and my heart filled with praise, which I think is probably better all round, don’t you?
Why Accept the Authority of the Bible? A Twelve Step Argument
I saw an intriguing exchange on Twitter the other day. My friend Mike Betts had written something very innocuous - the Bible says we should trust God, or something like that - and someone responded, in a series of tweets that quickly degenerated into expletives and accusations of idiocy, that it is ridiculous to base our lives on an Iron Age text. What evidence is there, they demanded, that the Bible is true? After a few helpful questions, Mike wisely suggested that 140 characters might not be the best medium with which to argue for biblical authority, and said he could point them to some useful resources if they wanted. His interlocutor, apparently satisfied that "I can't explain all that in a tweet" meant "I have no reason to believe it whatsoever", immediately left the discussion, no doubt even more entrenched in their view that all Christians are idiots who are simply too stupid to have thought about whether the Bible can be trusted. Sigh.
That exchange made me wonder: how would explain the argument for biblical authority, to a secular person, as quickly and logically as possible? Obviously I wouldn’t assume someone could be persuaded by a few hundred words - and in my experience, people who fire expletives around on Twitter are not usually looking to be persuaded of anything anyway - but I thought it might be helpful to lay out the argument, at least as I see it, both to give an example of how a Christian might respond, and to help a sceptic identify the point in the argument at which they differ. (Usually, it comes down to the resurrection. If I believe Jesus is alive, I probably accept biblical authority, even if I nuance it differently from other Christians; if I don’t, then I don’t. On the basis of 1 Corinthians 15:12-19, I think Paul would be with me on that).
So here’s my argument for biblical authority in twelve steps.
1. There are multiple, literarily independent, first century historical sources that attest to the empty tomb and/or the resurrection appearances of Jesus of Nazareth. (For the very sceptical, this can be established by learning Koine Greek and visiting the Chester Beatty Library, the British Museum, and so on).
2. Historical scholars generally agree that this is because the tomb of Jesus was empty, and his followers had experiences which they understood to be resurrection appearances. (See, for summaries of and engagement with recent scholarship, N T Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God; Geza Vermes, The Resurrection; Michael Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach; and so on).
3. If miracles are possible, the most likely explanation of this evidence is that Jesus of Nazareth was bodily raised from the dead. If miracles are impossible, an alternative explanation - hallucination, conspiracy, swoon, other - is required. (This is argued compellingly in the books cited above, and implicitly conceded in the work of many sceptical writers on the resurrection, including well-known non-Christians like Vermes, Bart Ehrman and others).
4. If the existence of a creator God is possible, then miracles - understood as suspensions of natural laws as a result of divine action - are possible, since a creator God could act in any way they chose. (The first half of my If God, Then What? lays this out in a bit more detail; for a lot more detail, see Craig Keener’s Miracles).
5. The existence of God is possible. (Philosophically, this may be the most contentious premise so far - but since anyone denying it has to show the impossibility of God, and that has proved beyond the reach of most, I consider it fair game).
6. Therefore miracles are possible (from #4, #5).
7. Therefore the most likely explanation for the historical evidence we have is that Jesus of Nazareth was bodily raised from the dead (from #3, #6).
8. If Jesus of Nazareth was bodily raised from the dead, the most likely meaning of this event is that Israel’s God has vindicated and exalted him as Lord. (Almost all interpreters in history who accept the resurrection have agreed with this conclusion; a fascinating exception is the Jewish scholar Pinchas Lapide, who believes it means that Jesus was a great prophet to whom Israel should have listened).
9. If Israel’s God has vindicated and exalted Jesus as Lord, then we should accept and embrace his view of the way God’s authority functions in the world. (Again, almost everyone in history who believe Jesus was resurrected has believed something like this).
10. The historical evidence we have indicates that Jesus of Nazareth believed divine authority was expressed through (a) the Hebrew scriptures, (b) his own prophetic teaching and actions, and (c) the teaching and actions of those whom he delegated as apostles. (This involves seeing the canonical gospels as broadly reliable records of Jesus’ ministry based on eyewitness testimony; see e.g. Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses; N T Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God; and so on).
11. The Bible is the collection of (a) the Hebrew scriptures (Genesis to Malachi), (b) Jesus’ own prophetic teaching and actions (Matthew to John), and (c) the teaching and actions of those whom he delegated as apostles (Acts to Revelation). (It is of course open to anyone to object that, properly speaking, several of these books were not written by apostles. Rather than entering into a protracted defence of the Protestant canon here, I will simply direct the reader to Michael Kruger’s Canon Revisited, and point out that even if someone disagrees with him, they would still need to concede the authority of the vast majority of the Bible).
12. Therefore we should accept and embrace the authority of the Bible (from #8, #9, #10, #11).
As I often find myself saying, that is not an objective “proof” for the authority of scripture. That would be like proposing an objective “proof” for trusting empirical sense data, or the efficacy of human reason. But it might well serve as an effective way of identifying where the disagreement in these conversations really lies. Like so many things, it comes down to our answer to the question, “Who do you say that I am?”
Silliness, Irony, and Straight Talking
We have posted a fair bit here in response to the ‘Strange Fire’ conference – quite possibly more than the subject deserved. I can’t recall ever reading a MacArthur book, or listening to one of his sermons and I am not aware of anyone in my congregation who follows him, or would even necessarily know who he is. So I don’t feel particularly personally affected, and certainly not excluded, by what he has been saying. It is a lot of noise, from a small room, very far away. I appreciate that there are those for whom MacArthur is a more troubling neighbour, so the kind of refutation Andrew has provided here is helpful, but overall I’d classify the ‘Strange Fire’ brouhaha under the category of ‘silly’.
Humans tend to do silly things on a routine basis and Christians are not exempt from this tendency.
Mark Driscoll and James MacDonald pulling their gate crashing stunt at ‘Strange Fire’ were silly (as amply demonstrated here). I think they were trying to be ironic, but they missed it, and ended up plain silly. It was just too ironic that they were in town for another conference, titled, ‘Act Like Men’.
Christian publishing companies putting ‘PhD’ (or, even more embarrassingly, ‘MA’) after an authors name on paperback book covers is silly. Seeing this always makes me pick up such books gingerly, between thumb and forefinger, like something that smells bad. The irony is there might be good stuff in the book, but the silliness of puffing academic credentials on the cover to try and convince me of this is totally counterproductive.
I find it sadly ironic to meet with my more conservative brethren and note their undeniable commitment to the word and seriousness about preaching, yet when it comes to prayer… Let me put it this way, I hope they don’t make love to their wives like they pray. I’ve also been in meetings with some very silly charismatics where the irony lies in the fact that they seriously want to experience the immediate presence of God, but end up as odd as a box of frogs.
It is ironic that one shouldn’t answer a fool according to his folly, lest one becomes like him; yet the only way to answer a fool is according to his folly, or he’ll think he is wise. The additional irony is that the fool thinks the wise man is silly, whatever he says. Sometimes you just can’t win.
Sometimes it is wise to be silly. As Luther advised Jerome Weller when he was having a bad day,
Whenever the devil pesters you with these thoughts, at once seek out the company of men, drink more, joke and jest, or engage is some other form of merriment. Sometimes it is necessary to drink a little more, play, jest, or even commit some sin in defiance and contempt of the devil in order not to give him an opportunity to make us scrupulous about trifles.
Of course, the key is to know when the context permits, even demands, such silliness, and when being silly is just, well, silly.
Irony can be a useful needle to puncture the balloon of silliness. The apostle Paul does this to great effect at times. (“Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich!” 1 Cor 3:8) But too much irony, when everything is ironic, ends up in silliness too. When everything is ‘knowing’ and nothing taken at face value, irony becomes as redundant as the gift of languages at a cessationists prayer meeting.
Sometimes plain speaking is in order. A commenter asked the good question, “How much time is a pastor supposed to spend critiquing the practices of people he’s never met in places he’s never been? And on what platform are those criticisms to be made?” I think a lot of the answer is to do with proximity, and proximity varies according to the media involved. In the case of MacArthur, because ‘Strange Fire’ would have been less than a blip on the radar screen of my congregation, I won’t mention it at all in a public setting in my church – there is no proximity and it simply has no relevance. In the case of this blog, it is worth mentioning, and responding to, because those who read this blog will most likely have read other blogs speaking about ‘Strange Fire’, and because many of our readers are from North America where MacArthur is a much bigger cheese than he is in the UK. The proximity is greater, so the response is louder.
Any responsible pastor will be listening out for the proximate influences upon his congregation. When I was aware that a lot of people were reading ‘The Shack’ I felt it appropriate to make some public comments about it. On the other hand, I wouldn’t bother saying anything about Joel Osteen, even though he is a huge noise in many circles, because I am not aware that lots of my congregation are watching him on God TV. If that changes, what I say will also change.
So a good principle of plain speaking is that the closer to home a problematic theological view is, the more robust our response should be. And if irony can be used to expose a problematic view as silly, so much the better.
As Luther points out, sometimes silliness can be used as a weapon against the devil. But sometimes silliness is simply sad. To speak plainly, ‘Strange Fire’ was silly, which was sad, and I say that without irony.
Piper and Wilson on Cultural Engagement
I know very few of us have two hours to watch a theological discussion on Vimeo. But for those who do, can I heartily recommend watching this entire conversation between John Piper, Doug Wilson and Joe Rigney?
Covering cultural engagement, racial reconciliation, slavery, abortion, coping with insults and who knows what else, and as chock-full of wisdom (and, yes, controversy) as you’d expect a dialogue with these guys to be, it richly repaid the time I invested in it – particularly, in fact, in the various areas where Piper and Wilson strongly disagreed with each other. If you must watch just an excerpt, the section on the three ways of responding to the criticisms and hatred of others (1:03:20 to 1:16:22) is both highly relevant and immensely helpful:
Best of the Rest w/e 25 Oct 2013
This will be the last BOTR for a while. Thanks for all your positive comments on the ones we've done up till now. The majority of articles each week have been spotted by Andrew and tweeted by him throughout the week, so to keep your stream of good things coming, why not follow him on twitter? You can also follow Matthew, Liam, Jennie, St Stuffed Shirt and, indeed, the blog itself. See you there.
Betsy Childs on why we should decriminalise contract killing. Smart stuff.
You think you’ve got problems? Here’s how one pastor in Nigeria responded when his home and church were burned down in the conflict. Sobering and compelling.
There’s a sword coming out of Preston Sprinkle’s mouth, and it’s headed for Mark Driscoll. Robust.
This is a helpful, and simultaneously uncomfortable, post about “wannabe Christian celebrities”, by Jared Moore.
“Their young beautiful faces hidden beneath a veneer of the world’s lies.” A powerful article by Natalie Collins on slavery in some of its many different guises.
Now Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer and put fire in it and laid incense on it and offered strange fire before the Lord, which he had not commanded them. And fire came out from before the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord. Then Moses said to Aaron, “This is what the Lord has said: ‘Among those who are near me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.’” And Aaron held his peace. (Lev. 10:1-3)
This is one of those stories we tend to wish wasn’t there. It always comes with a jolt, and something of a sense of horror. The burning up of Nadab and Abihu feels shockingly disproportionate to us; and there is the terrible pathos of Aaron holding his peace – a silence that only breaks at the end of the chapter with his anguished cry to Moses, “Such things as these have happened to me!” It reads like a story without mercy; a story dominated by a capricious God rather than a tender Father.
Reading backwards in the story helps explain it in some measure. The tabernacle, the epicenter of true worship of the one true God, has just been erected, and filled with the smoking glory of God (Exodus 40). Moses then receives detailed instructions about sacrifices which are to be made at the tabernacle – sacrifices that represent the holiness of God, the means by which a holy God might be reconciled to his sinful people, and the manner in which those people will be identified as the holy God’s holy and set-apart people. This culminates with the consecration of Aaron and his sons as priests who will be the bridge between heaven and earth, as they minister in the tabernacle on behalf of the people, in service of YHWH (Leviticus 8). Aaron then offers a sacrifice to the Lord, to “make atonement for yourself and for the people” (Lev. 9:8), a sacrifice that is consumed by fire from YHWH (Lev. 9.24).
This is the very beginning of a whole new chapter in God’s dealing with man. The existence of the tabernacle, of priests, and of sacrifice, means that Israel has at her heart the visible, physically, worked out means of knowing peace with God. The tabernacle, the priests and the sacrifice are the bridge to life, but also mark the standard of perfection required by God of his people. The tabernacle, priests and sacrifice are at once liberating and terrifying.
Which is why when Nadab and Abihu decide to take matters into their own hands and offer ‘strange fire’ it is not merely a case of misguided enthusiasm, but an act of rebellion against YHWH himself – an act of rebellion that must be stopped in its tracks. Where before the sacrifice had smouldered, now the priests themselves burn.
It is a terrifying story, and reading backwards helps explain it, but so does reading forwards, because in Acts 5 we find a close parallel.
In the early chapters of Acts the people of God are once more constituted and defined, not this time by a tabernacle and priests and sacrifice, but by the once-for-all sacrifice of Christ and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Just as tabernacle worship identified the people of Israel in Sinai, now the presence and activity of the Spirit in his people identifies the Church in the world. Miracles, boldness in witness, and incredible generosity are the fruit of the Spirit’s work. Against this background, the decision on the part of Ananias and Sapphira to offer their own ‘strange fire’ by lying to the apostles, the church and (most significantly) the Spirit is an act of rebellion that must be stopped in its tracks. So Ananias and Sapphira, just like Nadab and Abihu, pay the price for their rebellion.
Both sets of deaths appear harsh to readers from late modernity, but seen in context their appropriateness is plain. In both cases, God’s nascent community is under threat. External threats will come aplenty, but internal ones are far more insidious, and potentially more destructive. The deaths of Nadab and Abihu, Ananias and Sapphira, demonstrate the absolute seriousness with which God watches over his people, and the absolute holiness of his name.
When we read Leviticus 10 it can seem that God is capricious, but when we read on in Acts 5 we see that he is in fact a tender Father. He is a Father who defends his holiness and his people, in order that his grace may be made known to the world. Immediately following the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira we read that,
Now many signs and wonders were regularly done among the people by the hands of the apostles. And they were all together in Solomon’s Portico. None of the rest dared join them, but the people held them in high esteem. And more than ever believers were added to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women, so that they even carried out the sick into the streets and laid them on cots and mats, that as Peter came by at least his shadow might fall on some of them. The people also gathered from the towns around Jerusalem, bringing the sick and those afflicted with unclean spirits, and they were all healed. (Acts 5:12-16)
In his mercy the Lord stops strange fire in its tracks, in order that the sick may be healed and signs and wonders performed. To which our glad response must, surely, be, your kingdom come, your will be done, Lord, on earth, as it is in heaven!
Oops! I Lost the Prophetic!
When I was at University (1979 – 1985) my conservative evangelical “friends” in the Christian Union would avoid me at mealtimes. They made it quite clear that I wasn’t quite part of the club. They would even sometimes try and persuade people I had recently led to the Lord that, in joining my church, they were in fact joining a cult. They would have me in their football team (because I scored lots of goals) but they treated me, at times, like something on the bottom of their shoe! This was all because I was a card-carrying, tongues speaking, prophesying, I-believe-in-apostles-today charismatic. I realize that all this sounds like I am nursing lots of inner hurt. I’m honestly not, but I thought I would say it as it was just so people in their 20s and 30s realize the cost of being charismatic back in the 1980s. Reflecting on John MacArthur’s Strange Fire Conference, I am tempted to conclude that very little has changed in the last 30 years.
In reality, of course, much water has flowed under the evangelical bridge since the 1980s. Some of my best friends are now non-charismatic evangelicals. When the whole Steve Chalke penal substitution debate kicked off a few years ago my conservative evangelical non-charismatic friends suddenly realized that we had more in common than they had previously thought. We are united in our defence of the Gospel and our missional commitment to make Jesus known in both our post-Christian culture and amongst the unreached peoples of the world. However, in our determination to be missional we can, if we are not proactive in the charismatic, become practitionally cessationist. I grew up in a Church that was birthed in the supernatural. My granny was born again at one of the Liverpool tent crusade meetings led by the healing evangelist Edward Jefferys in 1934. Growing up in the church in the 1970s I was conscious of two things. First, the church was practitionally (if not theologically) cessationist and, second, there was an older generation in the church who were part of the original church plant that longed for a contemporary experience of the supernatural like they had known back in the 1930s. Within 40 years, without a deliberate proactive policy of promoting and making room for the charismatic and the supernatural the church had slipped into a non-supernatural default position.
Bearing all this in mind, I think Andy Robinson has a point in his recent blog.
As far as John MacArthur is concerned, I am grateful for Andrew’s Biblical, reasoned and thorough response. My retort is rather briefer than Andrew’s. I’m with King David and Matt Redman in responding, “I’ll become even more undignified than this” (2 Samuel 6:22). We should be looking to demonstrate that as charismatics we are not simply the unbiblical lunatics we are being caricatured as but we should, at the same time, be looking to dial up the charismatic not dial it down. If we don’t then history tells us that we ourselves will be cessationist in another 20 years! Any thoughts?
A Few of My Favourite Things About Newfrontiers
I don't think I'm a sycophant. On the personality spectrum, I lean towards the relentlessly critical rather than the naively enthusiastic end, and that often ends up as the source of frustration for those I work with. On this blog, I've continually poked and critiqued the usual Newfrontiers view on all sorts of things - high Calvinism, baptism in the Spirit, the nature of apostolic ministry, "Word and Spirit", the sacraments, creation, war, spiritual gifts, and so on - although hopefully in as friendly and irenic a way as I can. I even managed recently to get called "a pain in the bottom" by Terry Virgo on Twitter (though I'm pretty sure from the context he was joking), and my views on various things have prompted a few leaders in the network to suggest I believe in cessationism, baptismal regeneration, Roman Catholicism, liberalism, and probably one or two other things. In other words, despite the melon-slice grin on my photo, I'm not the party-line, tub-thumper type.
But I love being part of Newfrontiers. I’ve been in four different Newfrontiers churches since 1990, and preached in dozens of others, and I can honestly say it is one of the greatest joys of my life to have been part of a family like this. So I thought it might be edifying for me, if not for you, to give a few reasons why that’s the case. (These will be general statements, obviously, rather than naive pronouncements that everyone who has ever been in Newfrontiers is like such-and-such, so please don’t feel the need to point out in the comments section that Harry Blowfly once preached justification by works, lost his temper with your sister and then went on a rant about the Illuminati). Anyway:
1. A genuine love for God, with heart, mind, soul and strength. People in Newfrontiers really love God. I mean, I know that should go without saying, but they really do. They love God with their minds - they think, read, study, reflect, theologise, discuss, wrestle and meditate on truth, and all over the world they remain completely committed to the authority of God in scripture. The love God with their hearts - they are emotionally excited by, moved by, intimate with and reverent towards him, and when you participate in a corporate worship time with them, you really get that. They love God with their strength - they work hard, give lots, serve the poor, plant churches, sacrifice comforts, preach the gospel, stand firm in the face of persecution, and travel across the world to reach those who don’t know Jesus. They’re not perfect, of course; nobody is. They really do love God, though.
2. A commitment to corporate and personal prayer. I’ve talked about this before with reference to Terry Virgo’s “I was praying, obviously”, but it’s worth mentioning anyway: Newfrontiers people pray. The hub of the movement, for as long as I’ve known it, has been the days of prayer and fasting that the leaders have together; virtually all gatherings and conferences involve prayer; and you will almost never encounter a Newfrontiers church that doesn’t have a regular prayer meeting as part of its corporate life together. Just yesterday, I was reading a vision and strategy paper for one of the largest churches in the movement, and there was an extended section in it on the importance of prayer (which doesn’t always come through from the church growth gurus), along with some superbly helpful guidelines on how to lead a prayer meeting. I love that.
3. A widespread and profound experience of God’s grace. All Christians believe in grace. Marcion did, Pelagius did, Tetzel did. But for a tragic number of Christians across history, the experience of grace has not been in line with the experience of Peter, Paul and the rest, either through poor teaching, ungodly examples, or legalistic traditions and practices. When you’re with Newfrontiers people - and here, as throughout this post, I generalise - you’re with people who don’t just believe in grace, but who experience it. They celebrate it, contend for it theologically, write and sing songs about it, talk about it incessantly, and live in the good of it, without swinging too far into legalism on the one hand or hyper-grace on the other. No doubt there are some nuances missing here and there, and some individuals who don’t have the balance right. But in Newfrontiers churches, a lack of grace will be seen as a calamity, not a quirk.
4. A high view of the church. Charismatic baptists have often, in our pursuit of personal experience of the Spirit alongside our belief in the priesthood of all believers, ended up with an anti-institutional, anti-ecclesial individualism, in which words like “church”, “authority”, “elders” and “membership” have been downplayed, and in some cases rejected altogether. In Newfrontiers, you’ll almost always find a high view of the local church, a commitment to qualified leadership, a desire to live out the Christian life together and not just in isolation, and a resolution to give local churches the best of our people, energies and finances - effectively, the best bits of Presbyterianism, without having to baptise babies. I remember asking one Arminian, egalitarian friend of mine why he was still in Newfrontiers despite his theological differences, and he said simply, “because they build strong churches.” That counts for a lot.
5. A willingness to learn from other denominations and streams. Everyone does this, I’m sure. You couldn’t survive as a denomination if you didn’t. But it seems to be amplified in Newfrontiers. More pastors would own Lloyd-Jones on Romans, or Grudem’s Systematic Theology, than anything Terry Virgo or David Devenish have written. In the 1990s, the two biggest influences on the movement were John Wimber and John Piper, and I doubt there are many groups of churches for whom that would be true. In the 2000s, consecutive leaders conferences featured two people who might well have ended up in a fight with each other: Mark Driscoll, who basically said we were so obsessed with charismatic gifts that we weren’t being missional, and Rob Rufus, who told us at one point that we needed “to strap glory bombs to our chests and then go out into our communities and let them go off.” (I know). Listening to, disagreeing with and learning from such diverse characters makes a movement stronger, and although there’s always room to improve, I regard this as a real strength of Newfrontiers as a whole.
6. An uncompromising response to cultural hot potatoes. Say what you like about complementarian theology - and I’ve got an article coming out soon in the Journal for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, which pretty much shows you where I’m coming from - but nobody holds to it because it’s fashionable or popular; in Western cultures it’s too restrictive, and in many Eastern cultures it’s too liberating. One of the delightful side-effects of the complementarianism you find in Newfrontiers churches is the almost flagrant boat-burning it requires when it comes to being invited to the cool kids’ table - if you’re prepared to say that men should lead their families and women shouldn’t be elders, the chances are you won’t cave if someone asks you whether you think abortion is wrong, or hell is for real, or gay sex is OK. I love that when Premier Radio or Christianity magazine want a robust defence of traditional evangelicalism, they talk to Adrian Warnock about Love Wins or to Greg Haslam about The Lost Message of Jesus, and I love that the Resurgence publish P-J Smyth, and Desiring God invite Tope Koleoso. In my experience, Newfrontiers leaders aren’t fluffy, and that really matters.
7. An increasing missionary zeal, both across the world and across the street. Many movements begin with missionary fire, and then peter out as they expand, so it’s encouraging to me that the trajectory in Newfrontiers is going the other way. I don’t know many churches that are better at mobilising people to reach their neighbours than GodFirst in Johannesburg, and I don’t know many churches in the Middle East that are reaching local people better than Yasam Kilisesi in Īstanbul. Every time I hear another story of a young family who are moving across the world to plant a church in a defiantly secular, Islamic or Communist city, I marvel at the courage and passion it takes - but I am also encouraged by the fact that the churches sending them are not sitting on their hands, but taking seriously their responsibility to walk across the street, or the room, to reach their own towns and cities. It bodes well, whatever “boding” is.
8. Friendship. For all I’ve said before about relationship being an excuse for doctrinal or missional muddle, I can’t deny the simple power of being together on a mission with friends. This is thoroughly subjective, of course, but I don’t apologise for that: I love being part of Newfrontiers because I love the people, and the gospel camaraderie that comes from shared history, shared theology and shared vision. I love being recognised, by a total stranger at midnight in Donetsk airport, because I’m wearing a standard Newfrontiers pastor’s shirt; I love having kebabs and watching football outside the Galatasaray stadium with Turkish guys I’ve known for a few hours, yet have more in common with than I have with my next-door neighbour; I love driving through the Negev in infantile hysterics with fellow pastors and teachers; I love being in hospital in another city with my epileptic daughter, and being visited by the local Newfrontiers pastor, who has somehow heard on Facebook that I am in the area; I love eating shwarma, sadza, plantain or tapas with people from nations I’ve only visited because of the group of churches I’m part of; I love hugs, and banter, and facetious tweets and in-jokes and awkward cross-cultural moments, and the international network of praying men and women who support each other in ways that only brothers and sisters can. I imagine every group of churches has those things, and I sincerely hope they do. But for me, those joys and privileges have come to me within the Newfrontiers family of churches, and I will always be thankful for that.
There, I’ve gone all misty-eyed. Anyway: if you’re part of a Newfrontiers church and you’re reading this, even if we’ve never met, I’m really grateful for you. And if you’re not, and you’re part of the massive worldwide family of which we are just a tiny fragment, I’m grateful for you too. One day we’ll meet, at the biggest party there’s ever been, and the odds are I’ll hit you in the face with a palm branch by mistake, and then we’ll raise a glass of “aged wine well refined” and share our redemption stories. See you then.
I’m not sure why, but getting to the second half of October seems to have started everyone off talking about Christmas. One of my children has written how many days remain until Christmas on our kitchen notice board. On Friday evening I walked up to the pub to see some un-churched friends of mine, to find them talking about Christmas, and the stresses and strains of trying to keep everyone happy: So and so has to be included, but doesn’t like the same things as thus and such, and so on and so forth – you know the kind of thing. What advice would you give to people in your church? they wanted to know. I attempted an answer, but also had to admit that I, too, had been thinking about Christmas as I walked to the pub, wondering about the expectations of the different branches of my own family.
As Christmas is still more than two months away I find it somewhat depressing that it seems to have bubbled up to quite such an extent in people’s thinking already. The reality is that the shops have been stocking Christmas trinketry since September, though it is still somewhat obscured behind the Halloween trinketry; but, somehow, getting into the second half of October seems to mean that Christmas is close enough for the anxieties about how to manage it to come to the surface.
As Christians we know this is all pretty crazy. While we joyfully celebrate the incarnation we recognize the arbitrariness of the timing of Christmas, and our freedom in Christ to either celebrate or ignore it. We know, and lament, the commercial hijacking of the festival. We know the value of family, and of demonstrating hospitality to ‘the widow and orphan’. Yet, we too, so often get as caught up in the stress of the season as anyone else. What to do?!
Of course, an increasing number of people do choose to opt out in some way – maybe by avoiding the hassle of cooking by going to a restaurant for Christmas dinner, or by disappearing on holiday somewhere. Given the option, I’d be very happy to go skiing for a few days and forget Christmas altogether, but I’m not sure I have that option. Assuming you don’t either, there are a few we can do in order to maximise the potential benefits of Christmas and minimise the downside.
Here are some of the things on my personal list of Christmas-coping strategies:
1. Christmas comes round every year, so you may as well be prepared for it! If nothing else, this means being financially prepared. Over the past few years I have got into the habit of setting money aside each month specifically for Christmas, and this has been a big help in reducing Christmas shopping stress.
2. If ‘not being conformed to the pattern of this world’ means anything it must mean that we do not have to buy into the complete Christmas package. We don’t have to spend as much as our neighbours do. We don’t have to try to create perfection – which is where I think a lot of Christmas stress comes from. We should have realistic expectations and not hang so much on a single day. Our hope hangs on Jesus, not on a day.
3. We should honour family and be generous to those in need, but remember we are not obligated to do things simply because of an arbitrarily defined date. (See Col 2:16).
4. It is good to celebrate and good to party! Celebrate what you can, how you can, and if you are fortunate enough to be surrounded by family and friends whom you like and the cupboard is full of food and drink you like, all the better.
5. Remember than in just over two months it will all be over. God is good!
Following my response to the cessationist arguments put forward at Strange Fire, here are three further comments about the content of the conference, after having reflected a bit more on the whole thing. In no particular order:
“Creeds and confessions.” In his final session, John MacArthur made the extraordinary statement that cessationism is delineated in the “creeds and confessions” of the church. Well: no it isn’t. It’s delineated in some of the Reformed confessions, including Westminster (as Kevin DeYoung explains here), and there are good historical reasons, given the nature of medieval and early modern Catholicism, for the caution expressed by the early Reformers towards miraculous claims. But you won’t find it in any of the creeds: the biblical creeds, Irenaeus’ rule, either version of the Nicene creed, the Chalcedonian definition, the Athanasian creed, the Apostles’ creed, or (as far as I know) any ecumenical creed at any point in the first millennium of Christianity. So while MacArthur’s statement gives the impression of an ecclesiastical consensus stretching from the first to twentieth centuries, what he is actually referring to is a collection of sixteenth and seventeenth century affirmations - as valuable as they certainly are! - amongst Reformed Protestants. By all means, say that Calvinists have generally been cessationist, but don’t imply that the entire church has.
90% of Charismatics aren’t Christians. I have no idea where this number comes from - research, intuition, the clear blue sky - but it is nowhere substantiated, extremely judgmental (what on earth entitles anyone to say that of professing Jesus-followers they have never met?), and strangely self-referential (since a huge number of those who reject miraculous gifts today are not Christians either. I feel certain Richard Dawkins does, for example). It is also a terrible way to argue: it is quite possible that 90% of paedobaptists are Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox, but I’m sure MacArthur wouldn’t accept that as an argument against paedobaptism. This silliness needs to be called out for what it is.
Babies and bathwater. One of the dangers of responding to a conference like Strange Fire, ironically, is that its very extremism makes it easy to throw the baby out with the bathwater - which is precisely what John MacArthur himself does with charismatic gifts. Yet when we peel away the inflammatory remarks, unfair representations and (in my view) arrogant judgments which have been made, there remains an important kernel of truth to what MacArthur and others are saying. There is a lot of nonsense in the global charismatic movement. Leaders within it, myself included, do not speak out against much of it with the clarity and courage needed to identify the true from the false. The exegetical foundations for various charismatic practices are much shakier than many believe (the silly link from “they were accused of drunkenness at Pentecost” to “and therefore that legitimates any bizarro practice I feel like engaging in” being an obvious, and sadly frequent, example). The prosperity gospel is a genuine threat to biblical Christianity, and is also much more closely embedded in the global charismatic movement than many of us in the UK realise. It is common to attribute babbling, blessed thoughts and psychosomatic, temporary physical improvement to the Holy Spirit, without discernment or appropriate reflection. And so on. MacArthur and others have, sadly, thrown very valuable babies out with the dirty bathwater during this conference; let the rest of us not copy his example by ignoring the valid and important points he and others have made, or (which would be equally damaging) tarring all cessationists with the same brush.
In many ways, it’s been a sad week for evangelicalism. But if we respond wisely, as many have, there are plenty of ways in which the fire of God will increase, rather than diminish, in our midst. “And the God who answers by fire - he is God” (1 Kings 18:24).
Best of the Rest w/e 18 Oct 2013
This week's digest of gems from around the web.
Today, 18 October, is Anti-Slavery Day in the UK. Reports suggest that as many as 29 million people are enslaved worldwide - and human trafficking isn’t just happening ‘over there’ - it is a significant issue here in the ‘civilised’ West, too. There are many ways you can get involved and help to make a difference, but one would be to buy the ebook Taken (available on ibooks), about the sex industry in Mumbai.
Watch this video for more information:
Justin Brierley attended a Benny Hinn healing event this summer. Here he reflects very wisely on the whole thing.
MacArthur’s keynote session at Strange Fire makes Andrew wonder if the event should have been called Strange Ire. Andrew’s response to the conference is here, and Liam hopes to write about it early next week.
Was Paul a supercessionist? Scot McKnight continues his (really helpful) series on Wright’s new book on Paul.
Larry Hurtado gives the invented Jesus theory a resounding raspberry. The final paragraph is particularly amusing.
And another video: comedian David Mitchell talking seriously about why he doesn’t find atheism to be the most rational response to the world, and why the argument that removing religion would stop humans killing each other is absurd:
Cessationism and Strange Fire
It's good to face robust challenges to what you believe, every now and then. The more deeply held a belief is, the harder it is to think it through afresh, and the more possibility there is that you will become hardened in a wrong position. To that extent, I'm grateful for John MacArthur and co for putting on "Strange Fire", an anti-charismatic conference which is nothing if not robust, even if I remain convinced that the tone in which MacArthur in particular has spoken of hundreds of millions of Christians has not been especially helpful. Wrestling with the content of the sessions has been sharpening and illuminating, although admittedly difficult and painful in places.
In this post I want to respond specifically to one of the more measured messages to emerge from the conference: Tom Pennington’s admirably clear case for cessationism. There are two reasons for this - firstly, it is easier to respond to a logically laid out case than a rhetorical appeal, and secondly, it is the foundation for all the other sessions, since (as I’m sure MacArthur and others would agree) if cessationism is not demonstrably biblical, then many of the criticisms of charismatics in the conference carry less weight. (There may be weight to some of them, of course, because one does not need to be a cessationist to be troubled by much of the contemporary charismatic movement. I am myself, for example, for reasons that will become clear if you read this). An extremely helpful and sympathetic summary of all the messages, including the one I’m quoting from here, can be found at Tim Challies’ excellent website.
Pennington begins by explaining what cessationism is: the belief that the miraculous gifts have ceased, including tongues, prophecy and healing. This is clarifying, because often the discussion involves all sorts of misunderstandings about exactly what different groups affirm and deny. The debate is not about “the gifts”: cessationists believe many of these (teaching, leadership, government, etc) continue. Nor is it about “miracles”: salvation is itself a miracle, for most if not all cessationist thinkers, and God also answers prayer. Rather, it is about “miraculous gifts”: tongues, prophecy and healing, and presumably also the gift of miracles, which Paul distinguishes from the gift of healing in 1 Corinthians 12. That’s what the debate is about.
Pennington then summarises what he believes are the four chief arguments for the continuation of the gifts, and comments on each:
(1) The New Testament doesn’t say they have ceased. But then again, it doesn’t say that they won’t either.
This sounds like a brilliant leveller: since the New Testament doesn’t make explicit statements either for or against the continuation of the gifts, its silence doesn’t suggest anything. This, however, is clearly fallacious. The burden of proof is firmly on the shoulders of the one who would place a break at the end of the New Testament period, for the simple reason that, throughout Scripture, substantial changes in the way God communicates with people - and cessationism posits a substantial change, from “eagerly desire to prophesy” to “none of that here, please” - are clearly communicated. God, we all agree, speaks clearly. If we imagine the Corinthian church in the late first century, still cherishing, copying and publicly reading Paul’s letters to them, it is easy to see that they would have no way of knowing his instructions to them (1 Cor 14:1 is a particularly clear example) no longer applied. Unless the covenant between God and man has since changed (which it hasn’t), and/or there are clear indications that certain instructions no longer apply (which there aren’t), we should assume that New Covenant imperatives apply to New Covenant believers.
(2) 1 Corinthians 13:10 - they say this means that only when Christ returns will the partial gifts of tongues and prophecies cease. This implies that the gifts continue. But this is an uncertain interpretation.
It really isn’t, though. We may not put things as bluntly as Mark Driscoll, who described the cessationist exegesis of this chapter as the second worst he had ever seen next to that of a Canadian nudist arsonist cult he once did some research on, but the charismatic case here is immensely strong (and the overwhelming scholarly consensus in the commentaries would confirm this). For Paul, the imperfect (prophecy, tongues, knowledge) will cease at the arrival of the perfect (the return of Christ, when we shall see him face to face). Not much uncertainty there.
(3) The New Testament speaks only of the church age, and so, they argue, the gifts that began the church age should continue throughout it. They say we artificially divide it between apostolic and post-apostolic eras. But they do this, too, by not believing that the apostolic office still continues.
Actually, a huge number of charismatics don’t believe this at all. Many believe, for reasons outlined in my recent article in JETS, that even in the New Testament period there were eyewitness apostles (the twelve, Paul, James) and people who never witnessed the resurrection but were referred to as apostles anyway (Apollos, very likely Barnabas, Silas, possibly Timothy, and so on), and that while the eyewitness category ceased with Paul, the other category didn’t. But even where that is what charismatics believe, the difference between this and the cessationist position makes the continuationist case brilliantly: the resurrection appearances of Christ are explicitly said to have ended with Paul (1 Cor 15:8), whereas there is no such statement concerning the miraculous gifts, despite the obvious relevance this would have for Christian communities within a few years of the epistles. There is a huge gulf between saying “eyewitnesses of Christ have ceased, because the NT says so” and “all miraculous gifts have ceased, despite the fact that the NT doesn’t say so”.
(4) 500 million professing Christians who claim charismatic experiences can’t all be wrong. But if we accept this, then logically we should accept the miracles attested to by one billion Catholics in the world. The truth is that 500 million + people can be wrong.
This is not really a fair representation of any responsible charismatic argument. Of course billions of people can be wrong: billions of people do not believe the gospel, and virtually no charismatic would contest that. A fairer representation would be to say that, in order to explain the enormous number of miraculous experiences testified to by charismatics (see Craig Keener’s recent book on Miracles for some well-documented examples), a cessationist has to resort to an awful lot of accusations of fraud, deliberate deceit and delusion amongst some extremely level-headed, critical and theologically informed individuals, many of whom used to be cessationists themselves.
Pennington’s list ends with those four, but he omits what is perhaps the most compelling argument for continuationism, which is eschatological. Joel 2, which clearly played a hugely important role in the pneumatology (and Christology, given Romans 10) of the early church, famously speaks of the “last days” as being an era when God would pour out his Spirit on all flesh, and they would prophesy, and see visions, and everyone who calls on the name of the Lord would be saved. For Peter on the day of Pentecost, and for Paul in numerous places, the eschatological, miracle-working, prophecy-bringing Spirit had been poured out, as Joel 2 (alongside Ezekiel 36-37, and Isaiah 32-35, and so on) predicted he would be. So it places unbearable strain on the text of Joel, let alone biblical theology, to suggest, as Liam Thatcher neatly tweeted this morning, that it actually means, “In the last days, I will pour my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and daughters will prophesy, and your young men will see visions, and your old men will dream dreams - but in the days directly after that, I won’t, and they won’t.” The eschatological age of the Spirit is accompanied by prophecies, signs, wonders and visions; we still live in the eschatological age of the Spirit; so we should expect prophecies, signs, wonders and visions. Like New Testament churches apparently did (Rom 12:3-8; 1 Cor 12-14; Gal 3:3-5; 1 Thess 5:19-21; not to mention pretty much all of the book of Acts).
Pennington then moves on to make a positive case for cessationism:
(1) The unique role of miracles. There were only three primary periods in which God worked miracles through unique men. The first was with Moses; the second was during the ministries of Elijah and Elisha; the third was with Christ and his apostles. The primary purpose of miracles has always been to establish the credibility of one who speaks the word of God—not just any teacher, but those who had been given direct words by God.
Crumbs. The crucial word here, which appears twice and is somewhat mysterious on both occasions, is “primary”. Where in the Bible does it say that the miracles of Moses, Elijah or Elisha are more “primary” than those of Joshua (opening the Jordan and stopping the sun in its tracks isn’t bad), or Samuel (who had the odd prophecy), or David or Solomon, or Isaiah, or Daniel, or for that matter any of the canonical prophets (who, by Pennington’s definition, are exercising miraculous gifts)? And where does it say that the “primary” purpose of a miracle is always to establish the credibility of the one who speaks the word of God? One might have thought the primary purpose of the exodus was to lead Israel out of slavery, and the primary purpose of the fall of Jericho was to defeat God’s enemies, and the primary purpose of the destruction of the Assyrians was to preserve Jerusalem, and so on. And even if the “primary” purpose of all miracles was authenticating a preacher, which cannot be shown, it would by no means indicate that this was the only purpose, and therefore that miracles were unnecessary once that had ended. If an argument this weak was advanced in any other context, I suggest, it would be laughed off the stage.
(2) The end of the gift of apostleship. In two places in the New Testament Paul refers to the apostles as one of the gifts Christ gave his church (1 Corinthians 12:28; Ephesians 4).
See my comments on #3, above. This argument takes us nowhere: all agree that the eyewitness apostles have ceased, and all agree that (say) pastors and teachers have not ceased. Only if we can show that all New Testament miracles, prophecies, tongues and healings came via apostles - which is patently not the case - would this hold any water at all.
(3) The foundational nature of the New Testament apostles and prophets. The New Testament identifies the apostles and prophets as the foundation of the church (Ephesians 2:20-22). In the context, it is clear that Paul is referring here not to Old Testament prophets but to New Testament prophets. Once the apostles and prophets finished their role in laying the foundation of the church, their gifts were completed.
This runs aground on the sandbanks of Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12-14 in particular, in which it is assumed that local churches experience prophecy in their meetings, yet without such prophecy serving as foundational for the church for all time, or being written down in the canon. Clearly, there is a foundational role for the apostles and prophets of whom Paul speaks in Ephesians (2:20; 3:6), but this in no way implies either that all prophecy has now ceased, or (obviously) that tongues or healings have now ceased.
(4) The nature of the New Testament miraculous gifts. If the Spirit was still moving as he was in the first century, then you would expect that the gifts would be of the same type. Consider the speaking of tongues. At Pentecost, the languages spoken were already existing, understandable languages. The New Testament gift was speaking in a known language and dialect, not an ecstatic language like you see people speaking in today. Prophecies (which were then infallible) and healings are also different in character today from the NT period.
Again, this hits serious problems when it comes to 1 Corinthians 12-14, which scholars widely agree refers to ecstatic speech rather than known earthly languages, and to prophetic revelation which needs to be weighed or judged, rather than instantly being added to the infallible canon of scripture. To say, further, that healings are different in character is to beg the question: there are numerous testimonies out there (I have heard many personally) of blind eyes seeing, deaf ears opening, the lame walking and even the dead being raised, unless one prejudges the veracity of such testimonies by assuming cessationism (or, of course, naturalism).
(5) The testimony of church history. The practice of apostolic gifts declines even during the lifetimes of the apostles. Even in the written books of the New Testament, the miraculous gifts are mentioned less as the date of their writing gets later. After the New Testament era, we see the miraculous gifts cease. John Chrysostom and Augustine speak of their ceasing.
There are two errors here. The first is that miracles are mentioned less in New Testament books that are written later; the book of Acts is certainly written after the books of 1 Thessalonians and James, and very probably after the other Paulines and Petrines, yet contains far more miracles (and John, among the latest books, has one or two miracles in it as well!) The second is that we see the miraculous gifts cease after the New Testament; again, this begs the question by assuming that subsequent accounts of and responses to miraculous or prophetic activity, from the Didache and the Montanists onwards, are inaccurate or exaggerated (see David Bentley Hart’s scholarly and excellent The Story of Christianity for all sorts of examples). In any case, this sort of argument - that, since something gradually disappeared from the church over the course of the first two or three centuries, it must therefore be invalid - should strike any five sola Protestant as providing several hostages to fortune.
(6) The sufficiency of Scripture. The Spirit speaks only in and through the inspired Word. He doesn’t call and direct his people through subjective messages and modern day bestsellers. His word is external to us and objective.
This is not so much an argument for cessationism as a restatement of it. Suffice it to say that James and Paul, to mention just two apostles, envisage Christians being given wisdom by God, experiencing the Spirit crying out “Abba!” in their hearts, and being given spontaneous revelation during church meetings, none of which conflict with their high view of the scriptures.
(7) The New Testament governed the miraculous gifts. Whenever the New Testament gifts of tongues was to be practiced, there were specific rules that were to be followed. There was to be order and structure, as well as an interpreter. Paul also lays down rules for prophets and prophecy. Tragically most charismatic practice today clearly disregards these commands. The result is not a work of the spirit but of the flesh.
I’m not qualified to comment on whether this is true of “most” charismatics, rather than “some”, but to the extent that this is true, I wholeheartedly agree with Pennington that miraculous gifts need to be governed and practiced wisely, in line with the New Testament. Clearly, however, this is not an argument against using charismatic gifts - it is an argument against using charismatic gifts badly.
This has been a long post, and if you’ve stuck with it this far, well done. I am grateful to Tom Pennington, and Tim Challies, for laying the cessationist case out so clearly and without rancour; although finding the arguments unconvincing, I appreciate the spirit in which they have been communicated here, and the desire for biblical faithfulness that pervades what has been said. As will now be clear, I think that the cessationist position is biblically distorted, theologically confused and historically exaggerated, and that a number of the comments being made about charismatics at Strange Fire have been unrepresentative and unfair, and have failed to engage with the opposing position in its strongest form. Nonetheless, Pennington has done us a service by expressing his position with clarity and grace, and that can only be a good thing as we work towards unity in the global church. I sincerely hope that this response comes across in the same spirit.
(For further reading, I recommend Don Carson’s Showing the Spirit, Wayne Grudem’s The Gift of Prophecy, Gordon Fee’s God’s Empowering Presence, and the commentaries on 1 Corinthians by Fee, Anthony Thiselton, and Roy Ciampa and Brian Rosner.)
Great British Inventions
This is not at all theological, and so is bound to provoke ire in certain quarters, but I think some will see the funny side of it. The final paragraph makes a fascinating connection between nation-building and gyratory-building, which I would be lying to say I had thought of before. From The Economist:
“British inventions have done more to influence the shape of the modern world than those of any other country. Many - footballs the steam engine and Worcestershire sauce, to take a random selection - have spread pleasure, goodwill and prosperity. Others - the Maxim gun, the Shrapnel shell and jellied eels - have not. Others still - modern atomic theory, the bagpipes - are capable of doing good, but in the wrong hands can have dreadful consequences. It is into this category that a British invention currently colonising the world falls.
“First introduced in Letchworth Garden City in 1909, the roundabout ... represents not just a clever solution to a common inconvenience, allowing vehicles to swirl rather than stop at empty crossroads, but also the triumph of co-operation over confrontation. Yet roundabouts tend to work only when motorists observe the British virtues of fair play and stick to the rules. Alas, this is not always the case ...
“The fate of roundabouts abroad thus repeats in miniature that of another British export, parliamentary democracy - another fine idea that backfires when mixed with jiggery-pokery. Just as democracy tends not to work without a free press, an independent judiciary and other helpful institutions, so roundabouts need decent drivers, straight police and reasonable infrastructure to function. The lesson of both is that fine ideas can wind up looking naive if they take no account of context and history. Swindon wasn’t built in a day.”
A Canon in the Canon
How many books are in your Bible? 66? Yes, I know what the answer is supposed to be, unless you happen to be an Eager Beaver Catholic Reader who just can’t get enough… But really, let’s be honest. How many books are there in your Bible?
A while back I was leading a discussion with a group of guys on how to read the Bible, and I tried an exercise. I asked them to be honest and admit how many books were in their canon. Of course, like the good Evangelicals they were, everyone immediately said they have 66 books, equally inspired and God-breathed. So then I asked them the following questions:
- What are the books you tend to read more than others?
- Are there genres within Scripture to which you give priority in terms of your time, devotion and thinking?
- Are there books or genres that you rarely or never read?
- Why is this?
Now let me be clear; I wasn’t inviting them to tear up the passages they disliked – quite the opposite! This was not an exercise in wishing we could do away with sections that don’t fit with our theological or literary preferences. I happen to think that even stating a preference, or referring to some passages as dull or ‘problem passages’ is a dangerous move, since it amounts to telling God He is a hack of an editor and it implicitly devalues portions of His word. We cannot and must not discard or ignore the bits of Scripture we dislike.
And that was the point of the exercise; we are not at liberty to simply create our own canon and yet I would suggest that most of us operate as if we have a functional canon within the canon. As we went round the group, it became apparent that each of us had particular genres or books that we preferred over others. Although we all agreed that all Scripture is God-breathed, some expressed a preference for epistles over narrative; others for the historical sections over the more nebulous and arty poetics texts.
You could take it further: It only takes a brief survey of what passes as theological writing to find many who create canons within canons within canons! So someone who may prefer epistle over narrative, may even prefer one chapter within an epistle over another - 1 Corinthians 13 over 11 for example - and use the former to silence the latter. It’s something of a Pringles approach to hermeneutics: Once you chop, you just can’t stop!
Here was my answer: I really like the gospel narratives – I love the clever, evocative, cryptic parables that shock you out of your comfort zone. I love the miracle stories that reveal both the majesty and humanity of Christ. I really like logic of the Pauline epistles and the way he sums up huge swathes of biblical theology so succinctly. I like the major prophets, and within them, particular chunks of Isaiah are comforting or inspiring go-to-texts, with which I’m very familiar. I guess I’m not naturally drawn to books like Kings, Samuel or Judges. I’m not very history-minded, and so dates and names and kings and conquests don’t really do it for me. When deciding which book to get my teeth into next, I rarely consider one of those… and so on.
Now in a sense there’s nothing wrong with this. We’re all wired differently and of course there are going to be different genres that resonate with each of us particularly. But once we had honestly noted our implicit canonical preferences – cards on the table – we took turns at commenting on each person’s list and considering the following questions:
- If you simply took the books you like as your canon, what would your overriding picture of God be?
- If you ignored the books you struggle with, in what ways would your view of God be skewed or insufficient?
- In what ways does your canon within the canon cause you to elevate particular doctrines over others?
The results were eye-opening. Whilst none of us had previously thought we were at fault for having particular stylistic preferences, it quickly became apparent that those who gave little hearing to certain genres were in danger of side-lining particular attributes of God, or key doctrines.
Ignoring the Wisdom genre ‘because it’s too airy fairy’ leads to a view of God who is more concerned with logic-chopping than beauty, and fails to recognise His involvement in the rhythms of everyday life. Focussing on the Epistles without narrative divorces theology from history. Ignoring the prophets in favour of the gospels means you won’t understand the palette of allusions from which the gospel-writers regularly draw and you’ll fail to recognise the urgent significance of Jesus’ teachings. Side-lining apocalyptic may leave you lacking answers to the pain and suffering that happens on a global scale, because you are unable to see its place within the unfolding plan of God…
One person even commented that by only focussing on the New Testament epistles he feared he was prone to moralism! That surprised me, given the strong emphasis on grace, but his reason was as follows:
“I read the epistles because I like to learn how to live, and so I treat Scripture predominately like a rule book. In not reading the narratives, I miss out on the stories that depict God interacting graciously with His people.”
A great and challenging insight.
So let me ask you again: how many books are in your Bible? If the answer is any less than 66, you may well be missing out on huge chunks of God!
A Challenge for Wright on Romans 4:4-5
One of the things that I've often wondered about Tom Wright's view of Paul concerns his reading of Romans 4:4-8. If you read the chapter as about the integration of Jews and Gentiles rather than as about being justified by faith apart from works of Law, as Wright does (as opposed to reading it as about both of these), what do you do with the bit about wages, due and gift? Here's the key section:
Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness ... (Romans 4:4-5)
That sure sounds like Paul is distinguishing between those who work towards justification (and thus receive their wages as a due, rather than as a gift), and those who do not rely on works but trust in the God who justifies sinners (and thus have faith credited to them as righteousness). That is how I read it, and how almost all Protestants have read it. But this, for Wright and some others, cannot be the distinction Paul has in mind, because his polemic against “works of the Law” is about ethnic boundary markers rather than contributing towards final justification by obeying the Torah. So what on earth does he do with Romans 4:4-5?
Well, he’s just explained his view in some detail in the Journal for the Study of the New Testament. He summarises it like this:
In Rom. 4 Paul has the whole of Gen. 15 in mind, and expounds it in relation to the covenantal promise of a single worldwide family. This forms a key part of his demonstration that Israel’s God has been faithful to the covenant, and Paul’s language of dikaiosunē reflects that. His reference to Abraham’s ‘reward’ (misthos) in 4.4 is an allusion to Gen. 15.1, where the ‘reward’ is the large family; he is not, then, refuting a view of justification which involves ‘earning’ a righteous status. One may then read 4.1 (modifying Hays’s earlier proposal) as ‘Have we found Abraham to be our ancestor in a human, fleshly sense?’, with 4.16-17 as the eventual answer to that question, not a parenthesis. ‘The justification of the ungodly’ in 4.5 is then a reference, not to Abraham’s own justification, but to the divine promise to include Gentile sinners within his family.
The approach will be familiar to many readers of Wright’s theology - the language of covenant faithfulness, the unusual reading of 4:1, the insistence that all of Genesis 15 is in view here, and so on - but what is new to me, at least, is the idea that misthos (wages/reward) is an allusion to Genesis 15:1, and therefore has nothing to do with working to secure justification. For a full defence of this position, you’d have to read the article; I have to admit to being unpersuaded, not least because these crucial verses (4-5) fit so much better with the traditional Protestant reading - that Paul is highlighting the difference between justification by faith and works, using a financial metaphor - than with Wright’s new reading. In fact, it seems that Wright knows what an uphill climb he has here. The line that particularly amused me was this:
Paul has picked up misthos from Genesis, which is firmly in the front of his mind, and allows an illustration to develop sideways out of it, which by coincidence happens to overlap with one way of expounding an ‘old perspective’ view of justification.
Quite a coincidence. Or it could be, of course, that Paul is using misthos to make exactly the point Protestants have usually taken him to be making, and Wright’s objection to seeing “works of Torah” as having anything to do with final justification is simply wrong, and perilously close to the fallacy of the excluded middle (whereby the only options are “earning your way into God’s good books” on the one hand, and “demarcating yourself as part of God’s people” on the other, with the more nuanced view, “obeying Torah as a means to secure final justification”, completely marginalised).
Clearly, this sort of thing doesn’t get properly resolved in a blog post. But I hope it gets you thinking, and if nothing else, prompts the interested among you to read Wright’s article and see what you think.
Name Me This
I went for a haircut this morning. A young guy cut it, which is noteworthy in itself – before he turned up I don’t think I’d had a man cut my hair in a dozen or more years, barber shops now being almost exclusively the preserve of female staff. (I’m sure there is a blog post in that observation too.)
He is a confrontational young man, who enjoys a chat and an argument. And he is creative. As well as cutting hair his pictures hang on the walls and he told me about a graphic novel he is writing about an imagined utopia, the basis of which is that it is a civilisation where nothing is named – a kind of hippy commune writ large where everything is held in common and all is sweetness and light. This idyll is broken when a traveller from our world visits and starts to name things, thereby creating immediate covetousness and discord.
There are some obvious and immediate flaws in this plotline, such as the impossibility of building a latrine, let alone a civilisation, without being able to say, “Pass me the shovel.” However, a more fundamental problem is that to dispense with names and naming things would not be to experience liberation but to fatally diminish what it means to be human, because we are the naming animal.
As with everything we touch, our naming of things can be used in a corrupt and corrupting manner; this is the inevitable corollary of our sin. Our naming can be deliberately derogatory and cruel, a means of belittling or manipulating others. And we are quite capable of using respectful names in a disrespectful manner, a mere change in tone of voice changing fundamentally what is implied by ‘sir’ or ‘madam’ or ‘doctor’. (Or, for that matter, ‘church minister’ or ‘hairdresser’.)
Naming also implies possessiveness, as in, ‘That is my necklace’. Possessiveness can be destructive too. It can be born of pride and fed by selfishness and find fruition in anger and envy. Possessiveness can begin wars.
Neither naming nor possessiveness need carry these negative connotations though. “Are names a big deal in the Bible then?” asked my hairdresser. And, of course, they are. The story begins with an act of creation, and naming. The man is named, and the place where he lives, and part of the man’s commissioning as God’s representative and possessor of all that God has made is his act of naming the animals.
The Bible is full of names – all those tedious Old Testament lists of the Jehoiaribs and Ebiasaphs and Chenaanahs. These name lists might be boring to us, but imagine their significance to those listed. This is rather more significant than finding yourself tagged on Facebook. This is evidence for Jehoiarib, Ebiasaph and Chenaanah that they are part of the story of YHWH’s people, and that YHWH himself recognises them.
Without a name there is not that kind of recognition. So we find that God himself reveals himself through his names. Our God is not only ‘God’. He is not nebulous and ill-defined, but made real and concrete in the experience of his people by the names by which he is known. It is by his name that ‘I am who I am’ is distinguished from the gods of the nations. It is in the name of ‘Father, Son and Holy Spirit’ that the covenant people of God are now found and identified. As Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy writes, “The name is the state of speech in which we do not speak of people or things or values, but in which we speak to people, things and values…The name is the right address of a person under which he or she will respond. The original meaning of language was this very fact that it could be used to make people respond.” When I speak to my heavenly Father as Father, I have confidence he will respond, because the Spirit enables me to call him Father, because of the saving work of the Son.
Before I finished having my haircut I asked the hairdressers name. “Daniel.” If I see him again, that is what I will call him.
Can We Question the Creeds?
This is a fascinating story, with a thought-provoking punchline, from Roger Olson:
“Some years ago I became editor of Christian Scholar’s Review—a scholarly journal dedicated to integration of faith and learning supported by about fifty Christian colleges and universities. It publishes many articles about Christian theology. About the time I came on the editorial board, before becoming editor, there appeared in the Review an article by a young evangelical scholar entitled (I’m going by memory here) “Jesus: the One-Natured God-Man.” It was an attempt to examine and correct the metaphysics and language of Chalcedon. The author clearly believed in the deity and humanity of Jesus Christ and was not just repeating the old Eutychian or Monophysite heresies (although exactly what those were is not always clear). He was wrestling with whether the “two natures” doctrine of the Person of Christ is biblically and metaphysically sound. He agreed with the intention of Chalcedon but saw it as ultimately coming down too heavily on the Antiochian side of the dispute that led to it. And, he concluded, the model of Christ expressed there (“hypostatic union”) ultimately divides the person of Christ by, for example, implying two wills and two consciousnesses in him.
“I read it with interest and considered his critique of orthodox Christology. He was not arguing from some modern bias against the supernatural (he affirmed Christ’s preexistence as the eternal second person of the Trinity, Christ’s miracles and resurrection, etc.) He was solely concerned to raise questions about the conceptuality and language of Chalcedon and ask whether it does justice to Scripture’s testimony about Christ or the Chalcedonian fathers’ own intentions.
“I never did agree with the author, but neither did I see him on a slippery slope toward heresy or “liberal theology” just for questioning the concepts and language of Chalcedon. It was a worthy attempt even if it ultimately fell short of being convincing.
“Years later I “met” the author (we corresponded by e-mail) and he told me that he had first sent his article to the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society which rejected it out of hand without editorial peer review because, so the then editor said, JETS is a creedal journal and does not publish articles that question orthodoxy.
“So, for that editor, anyway, Chalcedon, the hypostatic union, even though it is extra-biblical, was sacrosanct, above questioning—even from Scripture and reason.
“My question then and now is: how that does not add the Chalcedonian Definition to Scripture as the fifty-second (or fifty-third or fifty-fourth) book of the Bible? In effect, it does.”
What the Judge Really Said
The news that a man from Ohio is very much alive but legally dead is amusing as well as (in the words of the judge) a “strange, strange situation.” As a Brit there is an obvious temptation to shake the head and mutter, ‘Those crazy Americans’, but cousin-baiting aside, this case does provide an interesting study in the limits of human law.
Donald Miller disappeared in 1986, was declared legally dead in 1994 and despite resurfacing (resurrecting?) in 2005 remains dead in the eyes of the State, as death rulings cannot be overturned after three years. While giving all the appearances of life, he is unable to engage in the acts of the living – no driving licence, no vote, no civic responsibilities or rights.
Theologically, we might describe this as ‘imputed death’. The man is counted as dead, not because of any deadness of his own but because of the power of death exercised through the law. In the language of the law court, it makes absolute sense to say that the judge has imputed, imparted, bequeathed, conveyed or otherwise transferred the status of death to the plaintiff. Death is not an object, a substance or a gas, but it has been passed across the courtroom.
And that is quite something!
Best of the Rest w/e 11 Oct 2013
Our weekly digest of highlights from our online reading.
Joe Carter explains why we should all stop saying “The church never says/does anything about such-and-such.”
“Think of an engaged hipster on the ocean floor, blowing little Kuyperian bubbles.” Doug Wilson being brilliant, on Christian schools.
On the subject of education, Jennifer Slate writes compellingly in Christanity Today on trusting God enough to send her kids to a tough public (ie state) school.
Brilliant from Derek Rishmawy: why secular moralists get so angry with religious people on Facebook, and other stories.
Trevin Wax shares a letter from a millennial who walked away from Jesus. Seriously on the nose.
If you’re not a twitterer you may have missed the delightful mini online festival that was #AddAWordRuinAChristianBook. For the uninitiated, the way it works is you think of a Christian book title, add a word that substantially changes its meaning, then tweet it with the hashtag above. You can see the results here, but some of our favourites were:
Blue Like Jazz Hands / Luke Skywalker for Everyone / Crazy Love Handles / God Made You Special Brownies / I Kissed Carbon Dating Goodbye / Your God-Daughter is Too Small / The Love Shack / The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe-Malfunction / Stop Dating the Church Warden / Surprised by Bob Hope / The Sea Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe / The Quite Good God / Orthodoxy Smorthodoxy and of course, If I’m God Then What?
Wisdom and Weakness: Some (Very Brief) Reflections on James 3
As a child I couldn’t wait to wear glasses. All the clever people I knew wore glasses and I figured glasses = wisdom. Now I’m a stubborn adult who can barely read road signs without squinting my eyes to roughly the size of raisins, and I think differently. Glasses = weakness. Once I start wearing them I’ll be bespectacled for life!
It’s so easy to have messed up criteria for judging between weakness and virtue.
The Ancient Greeks spoke about meekness or gentleness as a negative thing; a sign of weakness. Yet Jesus was meek (Matthew 11:29) and praised meekness (Matthew 5:5). Meekness is a fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23) which we are encouraged to ‘put on’ (Colossians 3:12-17). James even calls it a sign of wisdom (James 3:13).
True wisdom is not measured by intellectual prowess (or the need for eye-wear!) but by something that many would consider a flaw. Meekness. Gentleness.
It’s too easy to pursue the kind of ‘wisdom’ that looks more like James 3:14-16 and less like verses 17-18. Are you teachable, or do you just like to ‘teach’ others? (If the latter, check out James 3:1-12!) Are you open to reason, or do you think your reason trumps that of others? Do you seek wisdom for personal ambition, or to make peace and bring order?
True wisdom is measured by the degree to which you are allowing God to shape you. So, are you asking God to make you teachable and give you wisdom? It’s a prayer He is keen to answer (James 1:5).
Should We Keep the Trinity Out of the Gender Debate?
Something I’ve heard a fair bit of recently, particularly amongst scholars who specialise in the Trinity, is that we should “keep the Trinity out of the gender debate”. The background, for those who aren’t sure why the Trinity would ever be in the gender debate, is that both complementarians and egalitarians have appealed to the relationships within the Trinity – specifically, that between the Father and the Son – to support their views of how husbands and wives function together in a marriage. Egalitarians say that the Father and the Son are equal in all respects, and therefore that husbands and wives should be too; complementarians say that there is a relationship of authority, headship and hierarchy between the Father and the Son, and therefore that there should be between husbands and wives too. The whole thing got quite heated a few years ago – unsurprisingly, since the centre of debate moves from “can women be bishops?” to “is God who we thought he was?” very quickly – and that has prompted a number of scholars, including Mike Bird, Fred Sanders and Steve Holmes, to wave the warning flag and tell everybody to calm down. Leave the Trinity out of it, they say; debate gender, if you must, on its own terms.
I get that. Making a debate about eldership a debate about the essence of God, especially in a rhetorically and emotionally charged context, does have the tendency to raise the stakes. But the question that has always gnawed at me is simply: doesn’t Paul do this? 1 Corinthians 11:3, which I posted on in a bit of detail last week, says, “But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God.” Isn’t the point of that text that there is a connection, whatever we think it involves, between the God-Christ relationship, the Christ-man relationship, and the husband-wife relationship? If so, isn’t that “putting the Trinity in the gender debate”? If not, how on earth do people understand that particular text?
My biases here are pretty clear: I’m not a systematician, I am a wannabe New Testament scholar (although I’m not sure exactly what earns somebody that hallowed status), and I’m doing my PhD research in 1 Corinthians, so I’m bound to be the guy who doesn’t want the systematic-theological tail to wag the exegetical dog. Nevertheless, I have a genuine question here, and knowing that the theologians I just mentioned are sharp guys and good biblical interpreters, I decided to put it to them on Twitter. Here’s the way the discussion, edited for clarity, went (and I should mention that Denny Burk, who edits the Journal for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood and therefore also has a stake in the conversation, enters the thread part way through):
Andrew Wilson: So I get the whole “keep the Trinity out of gender debates” thing. But what do we do with 1 Cor 11:3?
Steve Holmes: The reference is to ‘Christ’ so read it as Christology, not Trinity - parallel thought to e.g. John 14:28? But I don’t understand the logic of 1 Cor 11:2-16, so don’t really know what to do with individual verses.
Fred Sanders: The Patristic/Reformed mainstream reads it as forma servi, not the immanent Trinity. I need to handle this better soon. My hunch: moderns read it differently because of the shift to more social trinitarianism.
Steve Holmes: Yes, I think that’s right. We make the Father-Son relationship do the work Christology used (ought…) to do all the time.
Mike Bird: 1 Cor 11:3 only asserts that men & women should both respect their respective heads, just like Jesus Christ.
Andrew Wilson: Sure - but what it *means* for God to be the kephalē of Christ is the issue, right? Paul connects man/woman with God/Christ here.
Mike Bird: True, but he never says that Christ/God is the basis for Male/Female. No hint of ontology here.
Denny Burk: But there is analogy, and that’s the point.
Andrew Wilson: Yes. So my honest question is: isn’t Paul putting the economic Trinity in the gender debate?
Denny Burk: I think so (as I say here).
Mike Bird: I grant that Paul makes a genuine analogy, but I don’t think that this translates into an ontology.
Denny Burk: Who says that it does? That’s not really the point of contention between the two sides. Paul says that man’s headship over woman is analogous to God’s headship over Christ. That’s the issue.
Then, understandably but perhaps prematurely, the discussion stopped. I’m sure the point about social trinitarianism is correct, and I agree that the reference to “Christ” indicates we are talking about the economic Trinity (God-at-work) rather than the immanent Trinity (God-in-himself). I also agree with Mike’s idea that Paul is not speaking ontologically here. But nonetheless, I don’t feel there’s a satisfactory answer here to what Paul is doing in 1 Corinthians 11:3, if he isn’t connecting the (economic) Trinity and the relationships between husbands and wives. By the sounds of things, Denny doesn’t either.
There are plenty of people pushing back the other way, of course (and Mike Reeves’s brief section in The Good God is devotionally superb on this, as he focuses on the other-centred love which flows from God to Christ to man to woman). But from the side that says, “that which God has separated, let man not join together”, I’m not sure what I’ve missed. Any thoughts?
Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence
The argument goes like this: extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. If you want to say that Jesus was raised from the dead, fine - you just need to produce evidence that is as remarkable as the claim you're making. And, since the claim you're making is utterly remarkable, you'll need a lot more than a few ancient documents written by people who, let's face it, had a vested interest. In other words, talking about resurrection will commit you to a burden of proof that you'll never reach.
It sounds very plausible, doesn’t it? Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Some people think David Hume said it, although he didn’t; even Lawrence Krauss, debating Bill Craig in Australia recently, quoted it as if it was Hume’s. The problem is, it isn’t true. Here’s why.
When considering the possible explanations for a set of evidence, you cannot just assess the intrinsic possibility of each explanation. You have to assess the probability of each explanation producing the evidence you have. You have to argue that your explanation is more likely to have resulted in the available evidence than all the alternatives - for the simple reason that sometimes, apparently improbable things happen, and all of the possible explanations involve improbabilities. So if you’re going to object to the resurrection, it is not enough to say that, since dead people supernaturally coming back to live is extraordinary, extraordinary evidence is needed. You have to show that your proposed alternative - mass hallucinations, the swoon theory, the conspiracy theory, or whatever - accounts for the evidence better than the resurrection theory. Otherwise, you are simply replacing a remarkable explanation with an even more remarkable one, and in doing so believing that you have won the argument.
That doesn’t prove that the resurrection happened, obviously. But it does show why resorting to the “extraordinary evidence” line isn’t enough to show that it didn’t.
Best of the Rest w/e 4 Oct 2013
Our latest top picks.
Some super-clear thinking from Preston Sprinkle on Jesus and homosexuality. Really thoughtful stuff.
Speaking of power struggles, Chine Mbubaegbu gives some great answers to Vicky Beeching’s tough questions on beauty, feminism and the Bible.
Trevin Wax explains why we’re all like the lesbian who phones a church to ask if it’s welcoming.
Leaders as Thinkers
A profound couple of paragraphs from William Deresiewicz:
“We have a crisis of leadership in America because our overwhelming power and wealth, earned under earlier generations of leaders, made us complacent, and for too long we have been training leaders who only know how to keep the routine going. Who can answer questions, but don’t know how to ask them. Who can fulfill goals, but don’t know how to set them. Who think about how to get things done, but not whether they’re worth doing in the first place. What we have now are the greatest technocrats the world has ever seen, people who have been trained to be incredibly good at one specific thing, but who have no interest in anything beyond their area of expertise. What we don’t have are leaders.
“What we don’t have, in other words, are thinkers. People who can think for themselves. People who can formulate a new direction: for the country, for a corporation or a college, for the Army—a new way of doing things, a new way of looking at things. People, in other words, with vision.”
HT: David Stroud
Should Church be Fun?
When did you last laugh in church? Not the polite titter at the preacher’s strategically-placed joke, but a laugh of pure joy? When did you last drag yourself regretfully away after a meeting, thinking ‘that was a lot of fun’? Has anyone ever asked if they could come with you to church one week, because you seem to enjoy it so much?
I’m asking because I was raving (again) this week about how much I’m loving my Ceroc class and tweeted “Ceroc may just be the most fun thing I’ve ever done in London. And that’s saying something.”
“Better than church?!” Matt Hosier replied.
Well…I’m not sure I’d say ‘better’, but when I was scanning my memory for fun things I’ve done in London, church certainly didn’t appear on the list. I love it, it’s meaningful, worthwhile, even enjoyable (most of the time), but fun…?
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about what church is – what is it for? Why do we go?
Part of the impetus for these ponderings has been a plethora of articles about how the church can be made more welcoming and a better experience for singles. That attitude, the consumerist expectation that church is there to meet your needs (and it’s not just singles who think this way, the same articles could be – and often have been – written about families, youth, the elderly, the disabled, men, businesspeople, nurses, clowns… (OK, perhaps I exaggerate)) is not one I think the early church would recognise. When we sing ‘We are here for You’, I’m not sure we should be wondering what ‘they’ (ie everyone else) are going to do for us.
My nascent answer has been informed in part by Andrew’s description of the local church as being like an embassy, a little outpost of your native country “where people with the same passports can regroup, speak their home language, be encouraged and equip one another as missionaries to the world around them”.
It has also been shaped by Matt’s sermon on Hebrews 10:24-25, the verses where we are told not to give up meeting together, but to “consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds”. That’s what the writer of Hebrews thought should happen when believers met together, so shouldn’t it be the same today?
It’s where we meet to worship corporately, to share the breaking of bread, to hear God’s word and learn how to put it into practice, but I’ve never thought of whether or not it should be fun.
It should be a place of joy, I think. In God’s presence is fullness of joy, after all. To be fair, I have often come away from prayer meetings at my church bubbling over with joy, and I saw lots of joyful expressions in the church I visited last weekend – though mostly among those we’d designate as having ‘special needs’.
‘Fun’ though, still smacks slightly of irreverence, or the kind of youth meetings that attract all the kids, but are mystified when they can’t retain them through to adulthood. Is fun appropriate to a church service? Is it what we’re meant to be getting out of it – and what we’re meant to be putting into it?
Can we have fun without sacrificing faithfulness? Can we be characterised by joy without neglecting God’s justice? I’m wary of the impulse to create an appealing experience, as they seem so often to come at the expense of depth and truth.
I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Few verses in the New Testament have been the source of more controversy, ancient and modern, than 1 Corinthians 11:3: “But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God.” In the first few centuries of the church it was disputed because of debates over Trinitarian theology and Christology; more recently it has been disputed because of debates over gender roles; and in the last few years there have been significant arguments over whether these things (Trinitarian theology and gender roles) should even be connected. You’d think it would be hard to make “authority on her head because of the angels” (11:10) the second most controverted part of a passage, but Paul seems to have managed it when he wrote verse 3. He was on fire that day.
We all know Paul is speaking metaphorically. We know that the Greek word kephalē does not have exactly the same range of meanings as the English word “head”, and that Paul has chosen the word because of the point he is about to make about head coverings. But beyond that, there is disagreement. Particularly tricky is the question of what “the head of X is Y” might mean, practically speaking, given that we find it said of three relationships which look on the surface to be very different from each other: man-Christ, wife-husband, and Christ-God. What is going on here?
Some say it is about “authority”. What we have here, argue Joe Fitzmyer, Wayne Grudem and others, is an ordered hierarchy: authority flows from God the Father to Christ, and then onto man, and then woman. Fitzmyer’s article in New Testament Studies 35 (1989) is probably the classic statement of this position.
Others say the word head means “source”. Gordon Fee, Wolfgang Schrage and others have suggested that Paul’s point is about origin, and that he is using the word kephalē in the same way that we speak of the “head” of a river. Stephen Bedale’s essay in Journal of Theological Studies 5 (1954) was the starting point for this approach.
Most contemporary scholars reject both of these on lexicographical grounds, and prefer the idea of “prominence” or “foremostness”. Andrew Perriman made a particularly strong case for this in his article for Journal of Theological Studies 45 (1994), and he has been followed by heavyweight interpreters like Anthony Thiselton, Andreas Lindemann and David Garland, as well as (more cautiously) Roy Ciampa and Brian Rosner.
Given that diversity, it’s precarious to attempt a summary of “the state of current scholarship” – but then, attempting precarious things is partly what blogging is for. The majority view, as I say, would be the third one, but with most acknowledging that although hierarchy and authority are a long way from Paul’s point here – and the text places no restrictions on women in ministry, or anything like that – authority within marriage is probably implied by the way Paul’s argument works. Here’s a couple of representative quotations:
Even if by “head” Paul means “more prominent/preeminent partner” or (less likely) “one through whom the other exists”, his language and the flow of the argument seem to reflect an assumed hierarchy through which glory and shame flow upward from those with lower status to those above them. In this context the word almost certainly refers to one with authority over the other. (Ciampa and Rosner, 1 Corinthians, 509)
Although the Pauline statement lends itself to hierarchical rearrangement along these lines, it is not its intention to assert any such account of being as hierarchy. As the threefold statement stands, there is no descending or ascending hierarchy: only a series of assertions in which a ‘head’ is assigned to man, to woman and to Christ. The reference is probably to pre-eminence and authority rather than to relations of origin. (Francis Watson, Agape, Eros, Gender, 43)
Roughly translated: kephalē here doesn’t mean “source”, it doesn’t mean “ruler”, it doesn’t explicitly mean “authority” but it probably implies it in this context, and it basically means “to occupy the position at the top or front” (Perriman). So there.
The Chronological Argument Against God
It turns out there is a chronological argument against the existence of God. It goes like this:
1. It’s kind of suspicious that the earth has been around for billions of years, and then God suddenly decides to create people. I mean, why wait so long? [Well, perhaps because there’s more to creation than simply human beings? It’s hard to say for sure.]
2. It’s even more suspicious that he decided to raise Jesus from the dead before we had cameras or YouTube, to check out whether he actually did. [Right. Nobody can fake photos or videos these days, can they?]
3. Therefore God (probably) doesn’t exist.
This enthymeme is so asinine as to hardly be worth commenting on, except for the fact that I just found a version of it on the blog of PZ Myers, who really ought to know better. For now I shall amuse myself with the thought of what a savaging five apparently authentic YouTube videos of the resurrection, from apparently independent cameramen, would receive from the New New New Atheist movement, two thousand years after they were filmed. Somehow I suspect the chronological goalposts would have moved by then.
Best of the Rest w/e 27 Sept 2013
A few gleanings from our web-based wanderings (and wonderings) this week. What have you seen that's worth sharing?
Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby manages to be inspiring on almost any topic. Here he is on the Church working with Housing Associations:
The Church’s action is driven by the Christian experience of being overwhelmed by the love of God, given without condition through Jesus Christ.
Theos held an event yesterday in which Francis Spufford (he of the HPtFtu) talked about his book Unapologetic. If you missed it, were intrigued by the live tweeting, or just want to experience it again, you can listen to it here [Warning: contains occasional swearing].
There’s a wonderful article on Mary in the new First Things magazine. What do Protestants do with the four big claims of Mariology?
“When your kids have to ask what you’re doing this Sunday, it’s already game over.” Trevin Wax on parenting & youthwork.
But what if you don’t have kids and long for them? Emma Scrivener gives some thoughtful advice on how to cope with infertility. Honest, and rare.
In case you can’t wait until publication day, you can read the first 74 pages of NT Wright’s big book on Paul now.
But before you start reading that, watch this thoroughly outstanding three minute video on Halloween from Glen Scrivener.
Trueman on LGBTQIA
“I noted last week that an extra ‘q’ had been added to the now familiar LGBTQ initials. I had gained that gem of knowledge by browsing the freshman packet of Georgetown University (Georgetown is, as the late Richard John Neuhaus enjoyed pointing out, a Jesuit institution). Well, a keen eyed reader of Ref21 has spotted that Millersville University, while (with an admirable concern for conciseness) eliding the two ‘q’s, has still managed to add a few extra letters to the existing five: LGBTQIA. The ‘I’ and ‘A’ stand for intersex, and allies/androgynous/asexual. Now I want to be as sensitive as I can (hey, you know me…) but I confess that I have not the foggiest idea what ‘intersex’ means (is it possibly something to do with trains?) and am only slightly more competent to parse allies, androgynous and asexual. Nevertheless, hats off to Millersville for at least pushing the nomenclature of sexual politics further in the direction of genomic levels of complexity.
“But complexity comes with a price. And here are a few questions that indicate that price.
“1. Is the movement now excluding people with limited memory capacity? So many letters; so many particularities. At some point, those who have difficulty remembering their own wedding/civil partnership/open air bonding/mutual-polyvalent-commitment-ceremony anniversary are going to lose track of what all the letters represent.
“2. I notice that Millersville has a President’s Commission on the Status of Women. Is it rude to ask how this commission defines ‘women’? Is it that tired old reactionary view that women are those who have a certain chromosomal make-up and particular anatomy? Is it the rather crude view of the benighted lover in the Miller’s Tale that ‘wel he wiste a womman hath no berde’? Or is it the idea anybody who says they self-identify as a woman is a woman, beard possession notwithstanding? If it is the first, then the LGBTQIA would seem to have its work cut out by being placed in an immediately adversarial relationship to said commission. You cannot argue that gender identity is biologically determined and also a matter of self-identification. And if it is the last, the commission on women would seem somewhat redundant on the grounds that all plastic identities seem more than covered by the emerging identity politics genome and that ‘woman’ as a political category is really of no use at all.
“3. All of these groups seem to assume that there is at least an underlying, if unspoken, definition of ‘human.’ I wonder what that definition is? A fair reading of Millersville identity politics seems to indicate that rabbits, toadstools and ping-pong balls are excluded from these community groups. But why? This would seem to me to be a bit of a power play on behalf of the political establishment.”
You can read the whole thing here.
The recent revelation that Oprah Winfrey has put Rob Bell on her Spiritual A-Team has caused me to ponder anew the spiritual state of prime time TV.
My conclusion: I think every chat-show should have a theologian-in-residence; someone committed to the spiritual wellbeing of the host and guests. A chat-show chaplain if you will. Or, if you’ll forgive the Partridge-esque neologism, a ‘chatlain.’
Imagine if Jerry Springer’s final thought were replaced by a biblical homily and closing prayer.
Imagine how different Robert Kilroy-Silk’s fate might have been if he’d had a pastor screening his rather peculiar racial pronouncements.
Imagine how much spicier the show would be if Jeremy Kyle’s lie-detector were replaced by an Ananias and Sapphira style approach to eliciting truthfulness.
And imagine how my book-sales would soar if they were endorsed by the panel on Loose Women.
If anyone has contacts in the world of daytime TV, I humbly submit myself for the role.
Our Eyes were Opened
You know those times when someone points something out in the Bible that is so clear you can’t believe you haven’t noticed it before, yet so deep and profound it seems almost as though there were some intelligent author at work*, weaving the story together and hiding treasures along the way? (*Before you all panic and start calling for me to be kicked off the ‘author’ list of this blog, yes, that IS what I believe, and haven’t suddenly stumbled upon the idea now!) Well I had one of those moments last Sunday.
Andy Tuck, the new student worker at our church was somewhat thrown into the deep end of his task by being asked to introduce and oversee the Communion. Though his nerves were apparent to all on the first few rows, the word that he brought was simple but richly satisfying.
He read the passage in Luke 24 about the disciples on the road to Emmaus, and focussed on a little phrase in v31: “their eyes were opened”.
This phrase appears on another occasion where people were sharing a meal, he reminded us. The other time was in Genesis 3. Adam and Eve ate of the fruit and “their eyes were opened”.
Adam and Eve suddenly saw their nakedness. Their eyes were opened and they were ashamed. They were aware of their guilt and their disgrace.
I’ll come back to the Emmaus Road in a moment, but in the sermon later in the service, David Stroud, preaching on Nehemiah 3, wondered why the Jews had not organised themselves to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. This holy city was supposed to be ‘the joy of the whole earth’, why were they allowing it to remain in ruins? Why had it taken a Nehemiah to hear of their disgrace from afar and come to show them the way to rebuild?
We can’t be sure, of course. The opposition raised against them when Nehemiah did get the work going suggests that perhaps they had simply faced too much discouragement and had given up trying, or perhaps, David suggested, they had simply grown accustomed to their disgrace.
Back (or forwards) to Luke 24. The disciples were despondent. “We had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel.” Despite all he had tried to tell them in his three years of ministry, the disciples had not been able to see beyond their centuries-old worldview. They expected a mighty warrior who would overthrow the Romans, but they got a man who allowed himself to be arrested and killed.
Despite the testimony of the women who saw the empty tomb, and heard from the angels that Jesus was alive, they had grown so accustomed to disappointment and their lives of subservience to Rome that they didn’t have eyes to see, ears to hear or hearts to understand the truth that was right in front of them.
But then, as Jesus broke the bread “their eyes were opened and they recognised him”.
Unlike Adam and Eve, it wasn’t their nakedness and shame that were revealed, but the promised covering for their sins, and removal of their disgrace.
Too often we live like the Jews in Nehemiah’s day, so accustomed to our disgrace we fail even to notice it, let alone do anything about it. Yet we live in the days of the One who came from afar and rebuilt the ancient walls, to make us a city on a hill, the light of the world, the joy of the whole earth.
Are not our hearts burning within us?!
Last week the Deputy Prime Minister announced (to some fanfare) that from 2015 supermarkets will be made to charge customers 5p for plastic bags. This announcement by Nick Clegg attracted a lot more news coverage than his comments about parliamentarians who opposed same-sex marriage being ‘dinosaurs’ or his own opposition to married tax allowance. We steer away from party political comment on Think (Andrew got a bit of a pasting when he once tried it), and taking a pop at the Liberal Democrats feels too much like shooting fish in a barrel to be sporting anyway, but the priorities revealed by the DPM were interesting.
A couple of days after the announcement of the plastic bag charge I was in the car and happened to catch the BBC Radio 4 program, ‘More or Less’, which runs the numbers on statistical claims and was doing a plastic bag analysis. The plastic bag was invented in 1957 as a sandwich bag and has become ubiquitous. Nick Clegg offered the observation that we, “Might use them for 20 minutes walking back from the shops, but they take a thousand years to degrade.” How true, asked ‘More or Less’, was this thousand year claim?
A lot comes down to the environment in which the bags are found. Apparently in the dry, airless, sunless, conditions of a landfill even hotdogs have been found intact after 25 years, so it would be expected that plastic bags could indeed last a very long time. However, there is no actual evidence of the thousand year claim, and the environmental impact of plastic bags might not be quite so large as imagined.
A 2005 study by the Environment Agency calculated the quantity of greenhouse gas production associated with plastic bags and found that their manufacture, right the way from extracting oil from the ground, through to use and final disposal, has a surprisingly small impact. A paper bag would need to be used three times in order to have a smaller environmental impact than a plastic bag, while a ‘bag for life’ would need to be used four times, and a cotton bag a whopping 130 times. And this is assuming the plastic bag is used only once; in reality more than 75% of plastic bags are reused. For example, I use ours for cleaning up after our dogs, and would have to buy bags for this task if the supermarkets didn’t supply them with our shopping. Moreover, if plastic bags go to landfill it is better if they do not degrade anyway, as this only releases further pollutants into the environment.
The real issue, concluded ‘More or Less’, is how you get to the supermarket, as one litre of petrol weighs as much as 50-100 plastic bags – which gives a good indication of how much fossil fuel goes into producing the bags, compared with powering your car.
Hearing this statistical assessment made me rather more sceptical about the government’s plans than I had previously been. In comparison with changes taking place in the way that marriage is defined and recognised it feels rather like straining at gnats while swallowing camels – which is probably a good metaphor for the entire political process in the ‘advanced democracies’. It is party conference season in the UK and I find myself less and less impressed by the whole rigmarole. I enjoy politics, I urge my congregation to vote at elections, and I have worked hard at trying to keep British cynicism about politics and politicians at bay, but it is getting harder to be enthusiastic. And this is without even beginning to comment on the way something as significant as the Syrian situation has been handled by politicians, European and American.
A few years ago Wayne Grudem published his Politics According to the Bible. I gave this some pretty rough reviews at the time, and still find it about as digestible as a camel, but I’ve just looked up what he has to say about plastic bags.
If my local government would prohibit grocery stores from providing plastic bags…it would force me to use paper bags. This deprives me of my liberty to choose which kind of bag I want. But I cannot carry nearly as many paper bags as plastic bags from the car to my house, because the paper bags break and tear more easily. Therefore every trip to the grocery store will now require some additional trips between the car and the house, and incremental loss of human liberty for every citizen. The paper bags also take more storage room and don’t work as well for certain other tasks, so there is another small loss of liberty. Perhaps some people think this insignificant, and perhaps others think there is an environmental benefit that comes from avoiding plastic bags, and that is worth the price of depriving the citizens a small amount of liberty in this way. I do not. But my point is simply to note that my freedom to use my time as I wish has been eroded a bit, and no one seems to notice that this has happened.
In the margin next to this paragraph is a scribbled, ‘O good grief!’ – my reaction at the time to what reads like a rather silly and petulant attitude. But perhaps Grudem wasn’t being only silly and petulant. When getting rid of plastic bags is accorded greater political significance than the preservation of marriage, perhaps it is not only personal liberty that is at stake. Perhaps (to misquote a phrase) we have eaten so much cake we no longer know what bread looks like. Perhaps we are straining at gnats while attempting to eat camels. Or, as the Teacher might say about 21st century politics, “All is vanity and a striving after wind.”
With Gratitude to the Guys on the Fence Line
There's a major new book on inerrancy coming out in November. It's in the Zondervan Five Views series, in which five writers express their view on a topic, and they all respond to each other's essays. In this one, Al Mohler argues for verbal plenary inspiration; Pete Enns says that inerrancy is simply the wrong word for what the Bible is; Mike Bird contends that it's an unnecessary word outside of the USA; Kevin Vanhoozer proposes what he calls a "well-versed inerrancy" that takes literary features fully into account; and John Franke looks to recast inerrancy as a witness to missional plurality. Although the book hasn't come out yet, I've already seen comments online to the effect that, so long as evangelicals sit somewhere between Mohler and Enns, we're OK. Those two define the boundaries - a do-or-die commitment to inerrancy that becomes pedantic and divisive on the one hand, and a similarly divisive commitment to the idea that there are mistakes in the Bible on the other - and the reasonable ones among us sit in the middle, convinced that the scriptures do not contain mistakes, but insisting that there are better ways of talking about what they are. The range of views available enables us to say: "Yes, I do believe in inerrancy, but not like that guy."
There’s something rather liberating about that, and it makes us feel reasonable, balanced, measured. As I’ve quipped before with reference to Tim Keller, we all tend to frame debates as if there is one extreme to be avoided over there, and another one over there, but we sit nicely in between them. Very few of us, whether because of our personalities, our fears or something else, are prepared to stand on the boundary, flailing our arms wildly and warning people like John the Baptist, and pushing everybody in the same direction; we would much rather be able to offset the discomfort we experience in pushing “right” by pushing “left” at the same time, as I suggested last year. So we get to defend our doctrine (which might not be inerrancy, but it’s a good example of what I’m talking about), but by reprimanding the Al Mohlers of the world for their intensity and extremism, we get to feel all nice and nuanced about it. Everybody wins.
It works with all sorts of debates. So-called soft complementarians - whom I’ve facetiously defined previously as those who believe the Bible is complementarian but wish it wasn’t - point out noisily the differences between our view and Wayne Grudem’s, or Mark Driscoll’s. Calvinists excuse our Calvinism by saying that we wouldn’t go as far as R C Sproul or Jonathan Edwards. When we talk about sexuality, we explain that Doug Wilson is way over-the-top, but he has a point. We believe in elder government, but not as bombastically as Carl Trueman. We believe God heals today, but with more theological refinement than Bill Johnson. We hold to the truthfulness of Genesis, but not like Ken Ham. So long as there’s a theological stooge out there on the boundaries somewhere, ideally someone who is on our team but can quickly be painted as a bit overzealous and intense, we’re protected: they’ll stand tall against the onslaught of secularism (or whatever), and we’ll hide behind them, with the occasional raised eyebrow and apologetic cough to indicate that we don’t agree with everything they’re saying. Bless them.
Now: there’s nothing wrong with mediating positions. Nor is there anything wrong with holding a view that involves standing in between A and B on a spectrum, and on many of the issues above, that’s exactly what I do, as regular readers will know. But there is something very wrong with a lack of courage which masquerades as nuance, a rhetorically (even cynically) motivated dig at our friends to appear more palatable to our opponents. You can say what you like about Mohler, Driscoll, Wilson and the rest, but they don’t lack courage. In fact, our nuanced positions are only possible because they are out there on the fence line, since if they weren’t, we’d have to be. As Jack Nicholson famously put it in A Few Good Men, “Deep down in places you don’t talk about at parties, you want me on that wall. You need me on that wall.” Many of us know what that feels like.
So how can you tell the difference? The heart is a mixture of motives at best, so how can you tell whether you’re expressing the position you hold like that based on nothing but conviction - and I believe, of course, that soft complementarianism, fluffy Calvinism and so on are biblically defensible and indeed persuasive - or based on timidity, in that you don’t want to appear extreme (or even cynicism, in that you want to bash someone else to make yourself look better)? I’ve thought about that a lot of late, because it’s something I’m ever at risk of, what with my desperate desire for everybody to like me, and my increasing predilection for words like “Reformedish”. And my suggestion is that there’s a big difference between saying “I love them, but I disagree with them about X”, and “I disagree with them about X, but I love them.” In the first statement, the thing you’re trying to emphasise, and to make sure you’ve communicated effectively, is your disagreement, so that nobody will take you for a lairy/rabid/misogynist/extremist/whatever person. In the second, the thing you’re trying to emphasise is what you share in common with them, so that nobody will think you don’t respect their courage and conviction, even where you have an alternative view of something. The difference can be massive.
When it comes to Christian brothers and sisters who take strong lines, speak with courage and stand firm in the face of ridicule and opposition, I want the main thing I communicate to be my love, affection and admiration for them, rather than any disagreements we may have. I don’t want to be the person who rises and sleeps under the blanket of security that they provide, and then questions the manner in which they provide it; I’d rather just say thank you, and be on my way. Admittedly, that last sentence may be lost on those who haven’t seen A Few Good Men. But then if you haven’t seen A Few Good Men, you probably haven’t lived.
The Pope’s Evangelistic Own Goal
The other day I was out on a bike ride with a friend when an unexpected theological question was lobbed into our conversation. Had I, wondered my friend, heard the pronouncement of the Pope, suggesting that faith in God is not required in order to ‘go to heaven’, merely seeking to live with a good conscience? I hadn’t, but my friend thought what the Pope was saying a very good thing.
I must admit to dropping the evangelistic ball at that point. My friend is somewhat fitter than me, I was out of breath, and was struggling to come back with anything other than, ‘being a good person won’t keep you out of hell.’ It is always difficult to counteract what sounds like the more gracious position.
Half a mile down the road I had recovered my composure sufficiently to make a more appropriate response: “But how can you ever know you are good enough? The whole point of Christianity is about trusting in the goodness of Jesus, not in our own goodness. If it is really only about how good we are that inevitably ends up in hypocrisy and self-justification and something that is 180 degrees different from what Christianity actually is.”
When I got home I googled the Pope and found out what he had said. From the British press I could see how my friend had got the impression he had. For instance, this headline in The Independent: “Pope Francis assures atheists: You don’t have to believe in God to go to heaven.”
I then found the original article, in La Repubblica (in English translation), in which the Pope engages in “An open dialogue with non-believers.”
Read at one level, the Pope is simply involving himself in some “Keller-esque” type apologetics here, seeking to win a hearing from a skeptical audience. As the headline in the Daily Telegraph has it, “Pope Francis reaches out to atheists and agnostics.” He is also building on the teaching of the Second Vatican Council, that, “Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience — those too may achieve eternal salvation” (Second Vatican Council, Lumen Gentium, 16). In fairness to Catholic dogma, Vatican II was not here teaching that there is salvation apart from Christ, or that those who have heard of Christ yet rejected him can be saved, but that any who have not heard of Christ can still be saved by Christ. I might not much like the way Vatican II approaches this, but have to recognize it is a position held (without much theological reflection) by a majority of Protestants too.
However, the Pope’s letter to La Repubblica does seem to open up an even wider road to salvation. Here is the key quote:
It would seem to me that…what you are most interested in is understanding the Church’s attitude towards those who do not share faith in Jesus. First of all, you ask if the God of the Christians forgives those who do not believe and do not seek faith. Given that - and this is fundamental - God’s mercy has no limits if he who asks for mercy does so in contrition and with a sincere heart, the issue for those who do not believe in God is in obeying their own conscience. In fact, listening and obeying it, means deciding about what is perceived to be good or to be evil. The goodness or the wickedness of our behavior depends on this decision.
My cycling buddy thought this was good news – it means that so long as we think we are being good and avoiding evil we will have no case to answer before God. But of course, it is actually terrible news, because, as I said to my friend, how can we know we are ever good enough?
If I’m cycling on my own I might think I am ‘good’. But when I cycle with someone else who doesn’t seem to notice the gradient in the same way I do, I am forced to recognize I am not good at all. If I want to believe myself good when I am not, the simplest thing is never to share a bike ride with anyone else. In a similar fashion the Pope seems to be scoring an evangelistic own goal – if all that is required to be acceptable to God is personal goodness, why tell anyone about Jesus? The logical position would be to dismantle the church!
Thank goodness that the goodness I can rely on is not my own, but that of Christ. Rather than his goodness condemning me, it saves me. His perfection, not my self-deceiving conscience, is my rescue. And that is really good news.
Hauerwas Gives Some Brilliant Advice to Students
From First Things:
“The Christian fact is very straightforward: To be a student is a calling. Your parents are setting up accounts to pay the bills, or you are scraping together your own resources and taking out loans, or a scholarship is making college possible. Whatever the practical source, the end result is the same. You are privileged to enter a time—four years!—during which your main job is to listen to lectures, attend seminars, go to labs, and read books.
“It is an extraordinary gift. In a world of deep injustice and violence, a people exists that thinks some can be given time to study. We need you to take seriously the calling that is yours by virtue of going to college. You may well be thinking, ‘What is he thinking? I’m just beginning my freshman year. I’m not being called to be a student. None of my peers thinks he or she is called to be a student. They’re going to college because it prepares you for life. I’m going to college so I can get a better job and have a better life than I’d have if I didn’t go to college. It’s not a calling.’
“But you are a Christian. This means you cannot go to college just to get a better job. These days, people talk about college as an investment because they think of education as a bank account: You deposit the knowledge and expertise you’ve earned, and when it comes time to get a job, you make a withdrawal, putting all that stuff on a résumé and making money off the investment of your four years. Christians need jobs just like anybody else, but the years you spend as an undergraduate are like everything else in your life. They’re not yours to do with as you please. They’re Christ’s.
“Christ’s call on you as a student is a calling to meet the needs of the Church, both for its own life and the life of the world. The Resurrection of Jesus, Wilken suggests, is not only the central fact of Christian worship but also the ground of all Christian thinking ‘about God, about human beings, about the world and history.’ Somebody needs to do that thinking—and that means you.
“Don’t underestimate how much the Church needs your mind. Remember your Bible-study class? Christians read Isaiah’s prophecy of a suffering servant as pointing to Christ. That seems obvious, but it’s not; or at least it wasn’t obvious to the Ethiopian eunuch to whom the Lord sent Philip to explain things. Christ is written everywhere, not only in the prophecies of the Old Testament but also in the pages of history and in the book of nature. The Church has been explaining, interpreting, and illuminating ever since it began. It takes an educated mind to do the Church’s work of thinking about and interpreting the world in light of Christ. Physics, sociology, French literary theory: All these and more—in fact, everything you study in college—is bathed in the light of Christ. It takes the eyes of faith to see that light, and it takes an educated mind to understand and articulate it.”
Best of the Rest w/e 20 Sept 2013
Another week, another internet's-worth of articles sifted and sorted to bring you the very best. (OK, the very best that a small number of finite beings were able to spot in the time allotted.)
12 Years a Slave, the much-lauded new film by Steve McQueen, is about slavery in the US, but is also about ‘religion’ at its best and worst. “Christian history, both past and present, is a sobering reminder of our tendency to manipulate the scriptures in pursuit of personal or political goals,” writes Jonathan Merrit in this review. The film will be released this October in the US, and next January in the UK.
“If it doesn’t require courage and boldness to preach…it is not the gospel you are preaching.” A typically punchy piece from Doug Wilson.
On a similar theme, but in a rather different style, ““[O]ur preachers tell us the wrong story entirely, saying not a word about the dark side—no, that’s too weak—about the dark center of the gospel.” James Gilmore on Robert Farrar Capon.
‘How to spot a manipulative church leader’. A powerful and moving story, superbly written by Donald Miller.
Anyone interested in modern Catholicism should read this. Mark Noll, George Weigel & Evangelical Catholicism. Great.
On the subject of Catholicism:
“Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?” [aka Pope Francis]
“I am a sinner whom the Lord has looked upon.”
A wide-ranging, thoughtful and humble interview.
And finally, here’s Jared C Wilson with a series of beautiful statements about what it is like being friends with Jesus. Soul food, right there.
The ‘he’ is Always Lowercase
I don’t have anything especially profound to say today, except to scatter at your feet a few little crumbs I’ve spotted being retweeted all across the web over the past week or so. They fall from the tables of three very different brands of atheist. Join the dots and draw your own conclusions… but I think they add up to an interesting picture of faith, faithlessness and a yearning for beauty:
First, a tweet from @RichardDawkins: “Odd that one can be moved close to tears by a great cathedral such as Salisbury, while completely lacking belief in what it stands for.” Odd indeed. But unsurprising. Beauty is a powerful thing.
Second, The Guardian reports on the first wave of expansion for the Atheist Church. Founder Sanderson Jones writes, “There is obviously a latent need for this kind of thing. People have always congregated around things that they believe in. I think people are going to look back at the fact that it didn’t happen as the oddity, not this part.”
Congregant Stuart Balkham explains that ‘Part of the appeal was the style of non-worship: “It’s unashamedly copying a familiar Church of England format, so it’s part of the collective consciousness.”’ And Theos’ Nick Spencer comments, “This contemporary idea of people who are not religious but wanting to maintain some kind of church-like existence has got form. We’ve been here before.”
And third, @openculture tweeted the classic Atheist Song from Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers.
Ponder and enjoy.
Lord of the Dance
This week I went to my first ever Ceroc class and, having read Matt’s article on some of the similarities of parkrun to church, was looking out for some of the similarities and differences here.
Ceroc is a dance style, described on the official website as “a fusion of Salsa, Ballroom, Hip Hop, Tango and Jive.” It is “the fastest growing dance phenomenon in the country”, already taking place in 200 venues in the UK and branching out into Australia, New Zealand, Dubai (!) and Europe. It sounds and looks intimidating, but I found it lots of fun, and a great way to keep fit and meet new people.
But as for the similarities to and differences from church…
As with parkrun, it started small and has grown through ‘personal evangelism’ – I went along through the persistent invitations of a friend who, once she’d spotted a glimmer of interest, didn’t give up until she’d brought me along.
Like going to church for the first time, I had some practical concerns: what should I wear? How will I know where to go? What if no-one talks to me? What if I do something wrong? And, like many churches (sadly), it took a bit of courage to ask questions of some of the old hands (my friend was delayed so I had to go in alone), but once that barrier was broken, everyone was very friendly. (Like too many of my own experiences of church, my friend told me that some venues can be a bit cliquey, and the experienced dancers avoid dancing with novices, but fortunately my local venue was not like that.)
It works on a model of teaching from the front, followed up with discipleship, as experienced dancers come alongside novices and help them to build their skills. Everyone is expected to put into practice what they’ve been taught, and to help weaker ‘brothers’ along the way.
There is training in small groups for beginners, and further training for more advanced dancers.
Commitment is encouraged, and membership is for life, though unlike church (when it’s working properly), there is no follow-up if you don’t show up for a few weeks. Your membership is valid at any Ceroc club in the UK (and presumably the world).
I was impressed to see a wide range of ages and cultural backgrounds. Sadly there was more diversity in that hall than in most churches I’ve ever attended – though there were no disabled people, no-one physically infirm, and no children. Participation is open to all, though the physical requirements and entrance fee do present a natural limitation on who is able to access it.
There are no social barriers – you can talk to and dance with anyone.
And yes, the men take the lead, but unlike in churches, no-one considers this a catastrophic affront to their humanity or equality. And yes, where there were too few men, occasionally women had to step up and lead for a time – and that’s all I’m going to say about that!
As in many churches, at least in London/cities, there’s an open invitation to go out for a drink together afterwards, and my friend pointed out that, unlike churches, since you primarily dance in male/female pairings, the after-dance social is the only way you really get to meet and build friendships with your own gender.
Like parkrun, it is popular and growing – there are new people joining every week – though I don’t think it’s growing as fast or successfully as parkrun (perhaps because of the cost and the relative skill-level involved).
The reason parkrun and Ceroc are growing and, in Matt’s phrase, “doing it better than the church does”, however, is because it is missing one or two vital things that the church must retain even if it results in stagnating growth: Jesus, and salvation.
parkrun is not the answer to our inherent need for purpose and belonging. Ceroc will not change your life now, nor give you hope and a future. These activities may be fun and may have lots of benefits, some of which may improve life in the immediate term, but they carry with them no promise of a transformed life. There is no expectation that you will live differently on Tuesday as a result of the dance steps you learned on Monday. Your 50-runs t-shirt will bring no lasting joy to you or benefit to your community. parkrun won’t inspire you to build a school, feed the hungry or fight to end slavery. Ceroc doesn’t expect you to love your neighbour, work for the good of those around you, or pray for your enemies.
Dancing and running may be growing in popularity, but that is because they are fun and personally beneficial while requiring very little in return. I came home from Ceroc buzzing. I posted about it on twitter and Facebook, and immediately invited others to join me. I am personally challenged that I have never felt like that, or reacted like that to a church service, but the fault is mine, not the format of the service or the quality of the welcome. I should get at least as excited about worshiping God in the company of his saints as I do about my temporary endorphin high. But it’s me who needs to change, not the church.
The British New Testament Conference 2013: A Review
Every August, all the heavyweight New Testament scholars who work in Britain, as well as a good number of lightweight ones like me, descend on a University city for the British New Testament Conference. It's a great context to keep up-to-date with recent research, listen to the big guns - John Barclay, Larry Hurtado, Richard Bauckham, Francis Watson, Simon Gathercole, Tom Wright, Michael Gorman, James Crossley and co - arguing about important stuff, browse brand new academic works, and build relationships with emerging scholars (a huge number of whom, it seems, are Christians). It's one of the few social contexts in which I find myself where my preferred mode of dialogue - from "Hi, I'm Andrew" to "How can you say that about tetagmenoi in Acts 13:48?" in thirty seconds - is not regarded as unduly intense, so I love it, and learn a huge amount. Last year I summarised the event in a series of four posts, but this year, owing partly to my new-found enthusiasm for twitter and partly to the relatively narrow appeal of the subject matter, I'm going to do it in one, summarising each paper's big idea, content, strengths, questions arising, and implications. Here goes.
Session: John Barclay, “Christ as Gift”
Big idea: Grace, for Paul, is basically about the incongruity of God’s gift to us in Christ.
Summary: Charis - that is, grace, or gift - has fallen from favour in recent NT scholarship, as it has become shorthand for Paul’s doctrine of justification by grace rather than merit, which most scholars accept is not a fair contrast to draw with first century Judaism. Yet it remains a huge part of Paul’s theology, and on the New Perspective reading in particular, it becomes hard to know what we are supposed to do with all these references to grace. Why does Paul worry about the Galatians falling away from charis, if they are simply going back to the Jewish covenant? Well: it all depends what you mean by charis. There were, in fact, at least four ways of understanding “gift” in Paul’s world, including seeing grace in terms of (1) superabundance, (2) singularity, (3) priority, and (4) incongruence. These need to be disentangled, because disagreements about grace/gift are not always what they appear (so, for instance, Augustine and Pelagius did not disagree on whether grace was prior, but they did disagree on whether it was incongruous). For Paul, it was the incongruity of grace that he not only believed in, but experienced. That is why he was so upset about the Antioch incident; for Paul, grace pays no regard to ethnic worth, and it is precisely this that the Judaizers were undermining.
Main strength: A reading of grace/gift that makes sense of Paul’s anger in Galatians, and his concern about falling away from grace, yet without presenting Judaism as a religion of legalistic works-righteousness.
Main questions: David Shaw: Is there any difference between the word “incongruous” and the word “unconditional” - and if not, is the latter just avoided for fear of sounding Calvinist? What differentiates those who respond to the gospel from those who don’t?
Implications: Church historical debates about grace/gift may well not reflect the way Paul (or whoever else) used the word charis.
Session: Tom Wright, “Jesus and the God of Exodus and Return”
Big idea: Paul takes Yahweh language about the exodus and applies it to Jesus.
Summary: Hurtado, Bauckham and co have established Paul’s high, divine Christology beyond reasonable doubt, on the basis of texts like 1 Cor 8. But another reason to find high Christology in Paul is his appropriation of exodus and return language which refers to Yahweh, and his use of it with reference to Jesus. So, the second temple period saw all sorts of hopes of God’s future return (Ezek 36-48; Isa 40-55; Mal 3), which clearly indicate that many Jews did not see the exile as over and Yahweh as having returned to Zion. (The only example of a second temple belief in the presence of Yahweh in the temple is Sirach 24, where it is imagined as Torah-wisdom.) Yet Paul, in several places, uses exodus-and-return language to refer to what God has done in Jesus, which indicates that for Paul, Jesus embodied the divine presence. Galatians 4 is an exodus story, in which the true God is identified as the Son-sending, Spirit-sending God, and as such the Jesus of Galatians 4 is not just Israel’s Messiah, but Israel’s God, leading his people out of slavery. Romans 6-8 is an exodus story (from slavery, to redemption by water, to freedom, to the gift of Torah, to the divine Spirit dwelling within God’s people), with Jesus as the one who leads people into the promised land, just as Yahweh does. 2 Corinthians 3-4 is an exodus story, as the God who would not show his face to Moses has now shown his face to us, in the face of Jesus Christ. So Paul’s use of exodus and return language of Jesus confirms his high, divine Christology (as well as, incidentally, his high divine pneumatology).
Main strength: A great one-liner: “The early Christians weren’t so much telling God stories about Jesus, as they were telling Jesus stories about God.”
Main question: John Barclay: Are those three texts really exodus passages, or are we just used to hearing Tom say that they are?
Implications: Paul’s view of Jesus as divine is not mainly expressed through explicit statements that “Jesus is God”, but through the way he rereads Old Testament stories and poems about God in the light of Jesus.
Session: Michael Gorman, “The Lord of Peace”
Big idea: Peace and nonviolence are a bigger part of Paul’s gospel than we usually think.
Summary: Paul is enormously concerned with the idea that Jesus is our peace, and even though the phrase “the Lord of peace” only appears once (2 Thess 3:16), the essence of it is central to Paul, who sees Jesus as “both the source and the shape of God’s shalom.” There are three elements to this: (1) Jesus as the promised prince of peace, or the one in whom the eschatological reign of peace has arrived (now expressed through reconciliation and nonviolence); (2) Christ as the one through whom God has made peace between man and God; and (3) peace as the defining mark of the ekklesia, which includes reconciliation and nonviolence. Sadly, Paul’s introductory references to peace are usually dismissed as formulaic introductions, or understood entirely in terms of reconciliation between God and man. But what if the gracious gift of the promised Messiah is in fact the shalom of God? Romans 15:7-13, for example, tells Paul’s audience that the ingathering of the Gentiles is part of God’s great cosmic peace initiative. References in Romans to the announcement of the gospel (e.g. 10:14-21), the essence of the kingdom (e.g. 14:17) and the results of justification (5:1) also emphasise peace. When you read Romans against the backdrop of Isaiah, which Paul frequently cites in Romans and in which the gospel is precisely one of peace (Isa 52:7), then elements like interpersonal harmony and nonviolence (Isa 2:4; 11:6-9, 13; 60:18; 65:25) become central parts of Christian praxis, since “the death of Christ is the non-negotiable foundation for Christian behaviour in the church and in the world.”
Main strength: The case for pacifism in Paul, and for peace as a central part of the church’s identity, is made much stronger by the connections between (especially) Romans and Isaiah. Peace in Paul cannot be divorced from the eschatological swords-into-ploughshares and lions-with-lambs vision of Isaiah.
Main questions: Tom Wright: What does God’s peace actually mean for the church? We get our own house in order, but what then? What does it have to do with Obama and Syria? John Barclay: God’s peace is the flipside of God’s wrath, just as God’s grace is the flipside of God’s judgment - so yes, God brings peace, but the question is how does he do that? What do we do with wrath, judgment and the role of the state (Rom 2, 13)?
Implications: Self-identifying as, and living as, a community of peace is extremely important for the church. And Christians probably shouldn’t bomb people.
Session: Larry Hurtado, “Fashions, Fallacies and Futures in New Testament Studies”
Big idea: There are fashions, sometimes very silly ones, in NT scholarship.
Summary: New Testament scholarship, like any discipline, is vulnerable to fashions, which frequently involve fallacies. If you use Google’s Ngram to search for terms like “structuralist exegesis” or “Marxist exegesis” over the last fifty years, you’ll find that they spike dramatically in a few years, and then disappear just as sharply a few years later. Some fashions last much longer: the pre-Christian gnostic redeemer myth, which was demonstrably fallacious, lasted for fifty years; so did the orientalist idea that “the Son of Man” was a pre-Christian Jewish title, despite any supporting evidence. So why were they embraced so often, and by so many gifted thinkers, given that there was never any evidence for them? Because the desire in the scholarly community was so strong, whether to reform German Christianity in an orientalist direction, to tie the origins of Christian belief to pagan and oriental concepts, to find sources for the origin of early Christianity, or whatever, that the bar for evidence was lowered substantially. Scholarship, like any pursuit, is partly about desire: we all require less evidence to substantiate something we want to believe than something we don’t. So when we hear proposals we want to accept, we don’t notice that we’re treating the repetition of a scholarly consensus as if it is actual evidence, like Pooh and Piglet hunting the Woozle. Contemporary examples of scholarly fads that are likely to bite the dust (in time) include the three redactions of Q by John Kloppenborg; the invention of the Q community, and the proposals of Burton Mack; postcolonial biblical scholarship, since postcolonial students are generally Christians who are interested in theology, and are unlikely to share the post-Enlightenment premise that theology and NT studies are fundamentally different things; the obsession with Derrida, who knows nothing about biblical studies, and serves an example of what the French call “le dilettantisme”; and programmatic approaches to all sorts of things, including empire. As Jacob Neusner puts it, “We can only know what we can show.”
Main strength: Pointing out that NT studies is as susceptible to “The Emperor’s New Clothes”, particularly when wider socio-political factors make us want to believe something, as any other discipline.
Main question: What other examples, perhaps a little closer to home, might there be? The Q stuff is an easy, North American, Jesus Seminarish target, and neither postcolonialism nor poststructuralism are big in the guild in the UK these days. But what other, more currently popular, trends might be fads which have little or no supporting evidence? Feminist criticism? Queer criticism? An obsession with intertextuality? Or what?
Implications: In order to avoid doing this stuff ourselves, responsible scholars need to do three things. (1) Be very wary of assumed truths which are not grounded in evidence. (2) Engage with people from different ideological and geographical contexts, and ask them if they think it adds up. (3) As C S Lewis urged us, read old books, because they show you your blind spots. (And I’d add: read Wright’s review of Dominic Crossan’s book at least once a year, as a cautionary tale.)
Session: Louise Lawrence, “Sense and Disability”
Big idea: We need to engage with the biblical world using all five senses, not just sight.
Summary: Sensorial perceptions should be a central part of the exegetical task. But we encounter the world of Jesus in a heavily text-centred, visual way, rather than engaging with the variety of senses we have, and this privileges those who can see (or perhaps hear) over those with disabilities. Furthermore, the stories in Mark of Jesus healing (the leper and the blind man, for instance), use the disabled people as foils for a healing work, rather than validating them and their disability, and as such healing becomes an act of negation. Consequently, Jesus, Mark and we as readers are complicit in a collective act of exclusion towards people with disabilities, and we need to have our consciousness raised about this, both textually and practically.
Main strength: The section on the place of smell, in particular, as a very common way of marginalising people and things (lepers, disease, death, foreigners, rotten matter, faeces, Dalits, even the way childhood taunts are framed), was very insightful.
Main question: Are we honestly saying that for Jesus to heal a blind person is a temporal act of exclusion rather than an eschatological act of welcome?
Implications: We need to avoid reducing people with disabilities to their disabilities - but that does not mean, surely, that we stop looking for the healing power of the coming kingdom.
Session: Crispin Fletcher-Louis, “Did Paul Have a Christological Monotheism?”
Big idea: A numerical analysis of 1 Corinthians 8:6 confirms Paul’s divine view of Jesus.
Summary: There’s a general consensus, since Tom Wright’s seminal essay on 1 Corinthians 8:6, that Paul cites the Shema (Deut 6:4) and splits it in half, in order to apply it to Jesus. To this, however, we can add further weight, based on some insights from numerical theology. As is well-known, Hebrew letters, and hence words, have numerical values, and they are often significant: so hevel (“vanity”) has a numerical value of 37, and appears 37 times in Ecclesiastes; YHWH has a numerical value of 26, and there are 26 calls to praise him in Psalm 136; John 1:1-18 has 496 syllables, and the word monogenēs (“only begotten”) has a numerical value of 496; and so on. Well: 1 Corinthians 8:6 has 26 words, which matches the numerical value of YHWH, and it is also formed of two 13 word parts, which matches the numerical value of ehad (“one”). As such, it appears Paul is deliberately splitting the Shema in half, and emphasising that the one Yahweh should be understood as the one God and Father and the one Lord Jesus Christ, by means of a numerical pattern.
Main strength: The statement that, for Paul, “1+1=1. There is a form of perichoresis here: God and Jesus performing a mathematical dance.”
Main question: Will other scholars buy this? It sounds fascinating, but a bit bizarre as well.
Implications: Speaking of a “Christological monotheism”, in some ways, isn’t strong enough; Paul operates with a “Jesus monotheism”.
Running the Church
In 2004 Paul Sinton-Hewitt began the Bushy Park Time Trial, a free, timed, 5k running event. This evolved into ‘parkrun’ and, at the latest count, there are parkruns in 216 locations around the UK every Saturday morning, as well as in a growing number of other countries.
Poole parkrun began in April 2011, with 65 runners. My first Poole parkrun was at event #5, when there were 90 of us. Last Saturday there were nearly 500 of us there, and Poole is now the second most popular parkrun, with only Bushy Park attracting more runners. Over the summer other parkruns have been launched in the area: Bournemouth parkrun, just a couple of miles down the road, started three weeks ago with nearly 300 people taking part.
I love parkrun and last week was proud to receive my ‘50’ t-shirt [pictured], given (yes, everything is free) to all runners who complete 50 parkruns. There are also t-shirts for those who complete 100 and 250 parkruns, as well as for juniors who complete 10.
If you are non-runner you may have no awareness of parkrun, but it is a phenomenon and, if not already, it will soon be taking place in a park near you.
It has been fascinating to get drawn into the parkrun world while also being part of a movement of churches committed to church planting. The similarities between what parkrun does and what the church is meant to do might not be immediately obvious, but are uncanny.
Where the church has been given the great commission, parkrun has the pithily memorable vision to “have an event in every community that wants one.” The parkrun mission statement is also straightforward: “parkrun organise free, weekly, 5km timed runs around the world. They are open to everyone, free, and are safe and easy to take part in.”
Poole parkrun has certainly felt somewhat like being involved in a (very successful) church plant. A committed core grasped the vision and determined to start an event. They recruited an initial congregation from those already sympathetic to the cause (from local running clubs) and ‘personal evangelism’ led to the event’s growth. The original core team remain in place, devoting considerable time and energy to making the event a success. There is now also a committed congregation – those who (like me) can be relied on to turn up most Saturdays, and also contribute to the event by volunteering on a regular basis. And there is the crowd – the many runners who come infrequently, or maybe only try parkrun once or twice before deciding it’s not for them. From this ‘church’ other events have spun off, using the readily reproducible model that parkrun provides.
Being part of the parkrun family also provides many of the same emotional and community connection points offered by church. It is genuinely inclusive, and this is one of the things I most enjoy about my Saturday morning runs. At Poole we have elite runners, including the current world 50k champion Steve Way, and Liz Yelling who represented Great Britain in the marathon at the Athens and Beijing Olympics. The quickest guys have gone round our course in 15 minutes, but every week there are those taking part who need closer to an hour. There are dads running with babies in buggies, people with their dogs, old people, young people, serious runners and those on a ‘couch to 5k’ program. All are welcome; guests are greeted; newbies are made to feel at home.
There is also a real community buzz. Rather like the post-service coffee at church, I typically spend as long (or longer) hanging around talking to people after knocking off my 5k than I do actually running it. And, like church, parkrun is utterly volunteer dependent. There are clear goals for personal development with many of us hoping (forlornly in my case) to regularly notch up PB’s. We have mentoring – Saturdays when clearly identified pacemakers seek to drag others round in a particular time. Quite often there is cake. There is also the sense of being part of something bigger – it is exciting to hear of new parkruns starting, and there are ‘parkrun tourists’ who try to visit as many events as they can.
parkrun really is like church, and like a church planting movement – only without Jesus. As such I find it very provoking – I don’t think there is any church planting movement in the UK growing so fast as parkrun. It is as if parkrun has taken the church’s model and is doing it better than the church does.
Good for parkrun. Come on church.
Five Views on Inerrancy
I'm one of those people who thinks there have been far too many books in the Zondervan Five Views series. But this one, on inerrancy - which is also the subject of the Evangelical Theological Society's annual meeting in November - looks fascinating.
With Al Mohler, Pete Enns, Kevin Vanhoozer and co, they’ve really wheeled out the big guns, and the title of Mike Bird’s essay alone is enough to make me want to buy the book. I already have a suspicion of whom I’m likely to agree with, but when done well, this format enables readers to engage with the best presentations of the alternatives, and it looks like that will certainly happen in this case. I’m looking forward to it.
Best of the Rest w/e 13 Sept 2013
Just a few gems we've seen this week.
A glorious response to Sam Harris from Ross Douthat in the New York Times. Put briefly: what a lot of cobblers.
Adrian Warnock writes that “John MacArthur [has accused] half-a-billion Christians of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.” Crumbs.
“The sinful heart loves itself and makes itself out to be god, and does not want God to be god.” Thoughts from Peter Mead on the Parable of the Prodigal Son and the true nature of sin.
What if ‘living like Jesus’ meant moving to a slum? Long but thought-provoking article from Christianity Today.
And from Doug Wilson (who else, with a title like this?) ‘A Five Gallon Bucket of Lamesauce’ (or “why Jesus hates socialism”). I wish I could write like this.
How Useful is Philosophy for Theology?
The question of philosophy’s importance for theology is massively complicated and oversimplifications and misunderstandings abound (this post probably won’t help in that regard!), not least because of how these two disciplines can be defined so differently by different authors. Nevertheless, it’s a really important question. So here are some (over generalised) explanations of the views of some German speaking (to keep it simple) theologians on the matter. I’ve imagined that they are each giving a score out of 10 for philosophy’s usefulness to theology:
1. Martin Luther, known for his great subtlety of expression, considered philosophy (or at least reason) to be the “the devil’s whore”; but this is to quote him out of context. He was indeed highly critical of the potential of reason to enable the human enquirer to reach God. This was partly a response to the high place accorded to reason within the Roman Catholic Church of his time with its strong sympathy for St Thomas Aquinas who went mad for a bit of reason (alongside revelation). However, reason, and subsequently philosophy on Luther’s understanding, does have its value in helping to bring order; both to human thought in general and to practical matters such as government.
2. Friedrich Schleiermacher endeavoured to make theology attractive to the modern mind of his day (somewhere between romantic and enlightened). He appealed to a general awareness of God evident in the human experience of religion as the basis for theological study. He accepted some philosophy, but did think that theology shouldn’t become held captive to philosophy; particularly the kind of philosophy that was most critical of religion. So philosophy has its place, but only where there is room within that particular philosophical worldview for (Schleiermacher’s particular kind of) theology.
Score 5/10 (Human experience 7/10)
3. G. W. F. Hegel is the exception here because he’s best described as a philosopher as opposed to a theologian (or, at least, as a philosopher first; theologian second). Hegel thought that philosophy and theology were the most sophisticated sources of knowledge and saw the two working synthetically. However, he thought that philosophy was the supreme discipline of the two. For example, in terms of how knowledge of God can arise (something that Hegel thought was possible), reason and revelation should be seen as working in synthesis. However, within this synthesis philosophy still trumps theology as the absolute form of knowledge.
4. Karl Barth was highly critical of philosophy as a means of arriving at theological propositions. Philosophy, for example, can give no objective proof for God’s existence of any value. Barth was particularly critical of natural theology (which has overlaps with philosophy), and considered there to be no way through from nature to the true God. Having said this, he was positive of philosophy for a number of reasons e.g. for what it can tell us about ourselves, and for helping academics develop disciplined and rational thought. Barth engaged with a huge amount of philosophy and thought that any decent theologian should do likewise as good philosophy can show us what is bad about bad theology.
5. Dietrich Bonhoeffer thought that philosophy couldn’t be ignored as to do so would be to pretend that it hadn’t had an impact on theology (for good or ill). Indeed, much of his early work was a direct engagement with philosophy. Also, his understanding of philosophy helped him critique the so called ‘liberal’ theology of his day. Having said this, Bonhoeffer certainly didn’t think that philosophy could offer anything foundational for theology as it tends not to account properly for the importance of revelation. Bonhoeffer did think, though, that theology shouldn’t ignore the philosophy of the 19th century, particularly philosophy that recognised the limits of reason (e.g. Immanuel Kant’s).
Whose view do you come closest to agreeing with?
Adjacent Urinals at Pease Pottage
It occurred to me the other day, during a conversation with Joel Virgo, that I now have more in common with people who share my questions than with people who share my answers. That sounds, even to my ears, like a ridiculously floaty remark, worthy of ethereal backing muzak and a generous helping of suitable parody, but I think it’s true. Here’s what I mean by it.
In the abstract, our answers relate to where we are now, and our questions relate to where we think we are going next. As such, someone who shares my answers but not my questions is like someone who I meet at a service station but who is heading to a different destination than me: we coincide in our location at present, but our futures are certain to be very different. Someone who shares my questions but not my answers, on the other hand, is like someone headed to the same destination I am, but who is currently in another part of the country: we are in very different places now, but we will get progressively closer between now and the time we eventually meet.
A little less abstractly, let’s say we have Pastor A and Pastor B, who are both part of the same denomination or network. When asked a series of questions about doctrine, mission and ethics, they answer in identical ways, because their theological and practical frameworks are so similar. But the questions that keep Pastor A up at night are very different from those that animate Pastor B. Then one day, Pastor A meets Pastor C, who is cut from a very different cloth theologically, and disagrees with him on all sorts of issues, but who nevertheless finds himself energised by exactly the questions that Pastor A is asking. In such a scenario, I suggest, Pastor A will increasingly find himself drawn to dialogue and partnership with Pastor C, and less and less so with Pastor B.
So, a bit more concretely: as a pastor, I may agree another pastor doctrinally, right down to the way I understand Ephesians 4 and Revelation 20, but if we are asking different questions – if they are primarily asking, “how can we guard against a dumbing down of charismatic experience in the next generation?” and I am mainly asking, “how can we ensure that everyone in our town has heard and understood the gospel?” – then I may have a less strong connection with him, in the medium- and long-term, than I do with a paedobaptist cessationist who is asking the same question as me. Even on this blog, I suspect the people I quote and find myself stimulated by the most are the ones with whom I have least in common theologically – R R Reno (Catholic), David Bentley Hart (Orthodox), Carl Trueman (Presbyterian), Doug Wilson (Federal Vision) – and I suspect that is because, for all the differences between their answers and mine, we are all preoccupied by similar questions surrounding intellectual, confessional, historical and cultural coherence. So sharing a hierarchy of concerns with someone, I suggest, may be more unifying than sharing a confessional statement. Put differently, the answers we give to certain questions are less important than the importance we attach to those questions.
And now very practically: I’ve heard it said many times that large churches have more in common with each other than churches who are part of the same denomination. So, it is said – by Tim Keller, Steve Tibbert, and probably a lot of other people – that a Baptist church of 10,000 has more in common with a Pentecostal church of 10,000 than with a Baptist church of 200. But I wonder if a large part of the reason for that is that the two big churches are both asking the same questions (about diversity, contextualisation, systems, effective communication, or whatever), whereas the two Baptist churches merely share the same answers (on doctrine, polity, ecclesiology, and so on), and it is their questions rather than their answers that predominate when they talk. When the two big church leaders meet, they feel like kindred spirits on similar journeys from different starting points – as if they’re both going to Peterborough, but one’s at Birchanger Green and the other is at Watford Gap. When the two Baptist guys meet, by contrast, they feel like two guys who are going in thoroughly different directions, but happen to be using adjacent urinals at Pease Pottage.
That metaphor may have stretched beyond breaking point now. But you know what I mean. Do you agree? And (more personally) what do you think your key questions are?
Where is God?
I followed a link to the ‘The Official Blog of University of Missouri Sceptics, Atheists, Secular Humanists and Agnostics’ today. The article which had been recommended was called: ‘Are Christian Apologists Evidence Against Christianity?’
How worrying! Could my very existence, or the existence of a blog like mine, count as evidence against God? Luckily, before deleting my blog I decided to read the argument being offered.
It is essentially this:
Time should not have to be spent changing conclusions and premises when talking about an all-powerful being that wants to reveal himself. The God of the Bible should be rather self-evident if indeed true. The fact that many apologists have spent their lives and built careers on trying to prove it when one simply should be able to see it clear as day shows just how weak all of the arguments are.
The key premise of this argument is the assertion that if the God of the Bible (Yahweh) exists then his existence would be self-evident to all. The problem is that the blogger gives no decent reason why one ought to accept this premise. Now, we could improve the situation for this blogger and give some reasons such as:
(a) God is powerful enough to prove his existence to all human beings.
(b) God desires human beings to know him.
These are two reasons why we might begin to take the argument seriously and the argument is often called the problem of God’s hiddenness. This question always reminds me of the scene from the film Bruce Almighty where Bruce crashes his car whilst praying and then, after inviting God to “smite” him (which is quite funny to watch), demands in a huge roar “Answer me!!”
The question of God’s hiddenness is a fair one and some philosophers consider it to be an argument on a par with the problem of evil but it is, essentially, just that – a question. It is not a logical disproof. It does not ensure the theist is thinking illogically in holding to God being as powerful as (a) and as caring as (b). This is why this blog attempt at the argument fails so badly. The person writing it appears to think the mere raising of the question equals some logical disproof until refuted and that’s not what the problem is claiming.
What many Christian philosophers have pointed out, in responding to the question of God’s hiddenness (as defined as God’s existence not being obvious to everyone), is that Yahweh is not only concerned with being known. That is to say, the mere knowledge that God exists is not the primary goal of the God of the Bible. In fact, the Bible itself makes it clear that some of God’s worst enemies are certain he exists (see what Jesus says about demons). In his contribution to Divine Hiddenness: New Essays, Peter van Inwagen states:
Most theists hold that God expects a good deal more from us than mere belief in his existence. He expects a complex of things, of which belief in his existence is a small (although essential) part.
Here is Michael Murray from the same book:
Many theists claim that ultimate human fulfillment requires not only belief in God, but a number of other beliefs about what it takes to be rightly related to God as well.
In his essay, Murray contends that the ideas of soul-making and moral freedom of the will are sufficiently good reasons to explain the phenomenon of God’s hiddenness. In fact, he goes further and claims that divine hiddenness is the only way to preserve such important features of human existence as the ability to make decisions about God without being unreasonably coerced. We should remember that the God of the Bible is not just another human being. Having his existence demonstrated to you would not be as mundane as discovering that there is someone living in the house next door to you and his name is Bill. That is not the kind of revelation you would receive. Richard Swinburne makes this point well when he says:
Knowing that there was a God, men would know that their most secret thoughts and actions were known to God; and knowing that he was just, they would expect their bad actions and thoughts whatever punishment was just… In such a world men would have little temptation to do wrong – it would be the mark of both prudence and reason to do what is virtuous. Yet a man only has a genuine choice of destiny if he has reasons for pursuing either good or evil courses of action.
Now we can return to the question of whether a loving God would fail to reveal himself as obvious to everyone. This is where Laura Garcia, in the same book, makes the connection with what we have said already. She points out that:
…genuine love presupposes freedom, since love is a free gift of oneself to another; any psychological states causally necessitated in a person by someone else would not count as love. If love requires human freedom, then, it is logically impossible for God to bring about the salvation of anyone who refuses to love him.
Another assumption the whole argument from hiddenness more than often makes is that human beings have the right to know God on their terms. Paul Moser has undermined this assumption in his paper ‘Cognitive Idolatry and Divine Hiding’. He points out:
Many people proceed as if we have a right to know God on our preferred terms. This is, however, nothing more than a self-serving assumption. Nothing requires that God supply knowledge of God on our preferred terms. God evidently owes us no such thing at all, despite common expectations to the contrary. ...
Nothing requires that God allow for (i) our propositional knowledge that God exists apart from (ii) our filial knowledge of God as Lord and Father of our lives. Ideally the two emerge together, although philosophers have a bad habit of neglecting the role of filial knowledge of God. God can be all-loving in supplying evidence of God’s existence in a manner sensitive to human receptivity to filial knowledge of God. We have no right to demand evidence of God’s reality that fails to challenge us to undergo volitional transformation toward God’s character. So God’s hiding from a casual, or indifferent, inquirer does not count against the reality of God’s existence.
There are a host of good, logical responses to the epistemic freedom God gives people and the divine hiddenness which logically follows from that and a few of them I have noted above. The demand, and it clearly is a demand, many current atheists make about having (what Moser calls) ‘epistemic control’ over God suggests their demand, just like Bruce’s demand in the film, is seriously misplaced. Perhaps it indicates the opposite of the filial commitment God desires in being in relationship with him? This will, no doubt, annoy the demanding atheist but so what? God is not merely a propositional truth to be noetically nodded at and then ignored. This being is the creator of the heavens of the earth and genuine, morally responsible, knowledge of this fact can result in nothing less than our worship. I would suggest this is what John is getting at when he says:
…these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. (John 20:31)
A version of this article originally appeared on Mike Rundle’s own blog.
Best of the Rest w/e 6 Sept 2013
It's back! Have you missed it? Here's a bumper edition of 'Best of the Rest' capturing some of the things we've read, watched and mused on over the past month.
On world issues:
“Crater creating is a whole lot easier than nation building” A spot-on post about Syria by Doug Wilson.
Worldwide, a child gets married every 3 seconds. Here are nine things we should know about child brides, from Joe Carter.
David Lawrence urges today’s abolitionists to take on the sex industry, saying:
There is ongoing debate among feminists as to whether or not prostitution is good for women; some women do find it empowering. But the question is whether the risk of keeping women in slavery is a price worth paying to protect those who feel empowered.
A nice short piece in The Economist about the Chinese house church: “between 60m and 130m.” So encouraging.
“Institutions are channels of blessing for the common good and to devote oneself to their welfare is to seek the welfare of the city.” James K A Smith waxing lyrical about the power - and necessity - of institutions
On theological issues:
Why the new evangelical liturgy (which we all use) is not as good as the old one. Kevin DeYoung at his best.
Derek Rishmawy responds to Brian Zahnd on OT violence, and absolutely nails it. A seriously good post.
Kevin DeYoung has written an immensely important contribution to the discussion of missions…
...and Timothy Beougher offers a helpful counterpoint.
Why were people in ancient times so ready to think a carved figure - say a golden calf - was their god and worthy of worship? Interesting thoughts here from Kevin Simler.
You hear more scripture read in a liberal Anglican church than an evangelical one. Which is interesting.
An even-handed, and fairly encouraging New York Times op-ed about speaking in tongues.
Simon Chan on why we call God Father. There’s more at stake than you might think.
A fascinating take on the problem of evil from Trevin Wax.
On life issues:
Steve Holmes gives some excellent responses to Vicky Beeching on evangelicalism and sexuality.
‘Yes, I’m the mechanic’ Garage owner George Zaloom on why every Christian should find joy at work.
Derek Rishmawy says the church has failed millennials - by not teaching them to love the church.
And finally, one to carry you into the weekend: What’s the single biggest command of Deuteronomy? You might be surprised at the answer.
Drinking Blood with the Pope
In 1527 Martin Luther wrote of Ulrich Zwingli that he would “Rather drink pure blood with the Pope than mere wine with the fanatics” (The Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ – Against the Fanatics). How had two reformers united on so much ended up so fundamentally divided and in such hostility?
Luther and Zwingli met for the first and only time at the Colloquy of Marburg in 1529. The Colloquy was essentially a theological debate with a decidedly political goal. There was a real danger of Charles V raising an army against the evangelicals at this point in time (the threat did not actually become a reality until the Schmalkaldic War in 1546-47). Philip of Hesse, one of the leading Lutheran princes was anxious to achieve theological unity which would then pave the way to a military alliance. Neither was actually achieved.
Luther and Zwingli had little or no expectation of success at Marburg. There was agreement on 14 out of 15 articles but there was never a hope of consensus on the Lord’s Supper. According to eye witness reports Luther simply wrote on the table either in beer froth or chalk dust (I like to think it was the former) “Hoc est corpus meum” (“This is My Body”) and that was that – deadlock!
In the earliest phase of his writing, most notably in The Babylonian Captivity of the Church (September 1520), Luther condemned the view that the Mass was a “good work” or a sacrifice in no uncertain terms. Interestingly, he also spoke of “signs” of covenant at this stage of his career such as the rainbow, God’s covenantal sign to Noah, circumcision, God’s covenantal sign to Abraham and bread and wine and the signs of the new covenant (A Treatise on the New Testament, that is, the Mass, August 1520). In other words, Luther came very close to the “Zwinglian” view that the bread and wine are not literally the body and blood of Christ but should be viewed merely as signs of the covenant, but he stopped just short. However, we must remember that the so-called “Sacramentarian controversy” – the rejection of the real presence, the bread and wine literally becoming the body and blood of Christ – had not yet occurred at this point. The main focus of Luther’s attack here was against the Catholic doctrine of the Mass as a sacrifice.
Equally ironically, in his earliest writing on the subject, Zwingli showed no interest in the nature of Christ’s presence in the bread and wine. In the disputation held by the magistrates in January 1523, which established Zwingli’s Protestantism as the position held by Zurich as a whole, Zwingli showed no interest whatsoever in the nature of Christ’s presence in the bread and wine. He simply denied, like Luther, that it was a sacrifice.
Within a year, however, Zwingli had shifted to the more radical sacramentarian or symbolic position. As I have written elsewhere Zwingli derived his mature theology of the Eucharist from Cornelius Hoen, whose views Luther had specifically repudiated just a few months earlier. For Luther, any symbolic interpretation of the Lord’s Supper had become tainted and guilty by association with his former colleague Andreas Carlstadt. For Luther, Carlstadt was an enemy of the Gospel and his views were an attack of the Devil.
It is never good to form theology out of polemic. Zwingli was more correct that Luther on the Lord’s Supper, but that is not saying much. Both were, of course, correct in rejecting the Mass as a good work or a sacrifice. Luther’s assertion that we should simply believe and accept Christ’s words as recorded in Scripture, “This is My Body”, at face value is, quite simply, ridiculous. Jesus also said “I am the door” (John 10:9), but this does not mean He swings on hinges! Had Luther never heard of metaphor? But Zwingli’s insistence that the bread and wine are merely a “memorial of Christ’s saving passion” reduces breaking bread to intellectual assent to a long-ago event and robs us of faith in Christ’s presence through the Holy Spirit. Zwingli’s view has long held too much sway in evangelical circles. It is time it came to an end.
On Being Edited
Editors, with whom I've interacted a fair bit in the last ten years or so, come in a number of different forms. Here's a list of the sorts I've encountered, with the most difficult (and valuable) varieties at the end.
1. Jobsworth editing. Irritating changes that make no difference. So, in my history A-level, my dissertation was entitled “Why did the Colloquy of Marburg fail?”, and the board made no adjustments other than changing the title to “Account for the failure of the Colloquy of Marburg.” Thoroughly ridiculous and annoying.
2. House style editing. Retaining all the features of the original, but conforming it to the style and format of the publication by changing preferred terms, punctuation, spelling, footnoting and so on. Necessary but tedious.
3. Transatlantic translation. Turning English prose into American prose when the English language is incomprehensible to Americans; thus, in my book Incomparable, “I put my hand on the hob” becomes “I put my hand on the stove.” The phrase “small enough to fit in the boot of a mini”, from GodStories, was (rather tragically) so baffling to the colonies that it had to be removed completely. Necessary but occasionally heartbreaking.
4. Content removal. Taking out bits of the text that might bother people, based on an awareness of the intended audience. So my inerrancy post for The Gospel Coalition appeared almost exactly as I had written it - but with all the hints that I was a theistic evolutionist removed. Presumably the intended audience would be troubled by the idea, so it was reworked with that in mind. Legitimate but sometimes frustrating.
5. Faux pas avoidance. Applying practical wisdom to potentially inflammatory remarks, as when Jennie Pollock told me that I should probably call a review article “The Pink Pamphlet” rather than, as I was tempted to do for comic effect and contemporary impact, “Fifty Shades of Graham Cray.” Life saving.
6. Contextualised adaptation. Adjusting the form of the text to make it more appropriate to its intended audience, while retaining all of its content. An early draft of a forthcoming article of mine in Christianity Today prompted a remarkable example of this from the editor, Mark Galli: “I’d work at getting the passive constructions to below 5% - they are at 9% now. Words per sentence is 23.4, but readers generally start losing comprehension in a sentence after 14 words. I’m not asking you to get it down to 14, but certainly into the high teens.” Difficult and impressive.
7. Fact checking. Going through all the author’s statements and checking them individually for factual accuracy. I will always be grateful to Wayne Grudem for rescuing me from a complete howler in GodStories, and that only happens when people read books carefully. Vital, reputation-preserving work.
8. Academic peer review. Meticulously assessing the viability of the proposal being made, from a scholarly point of view, and making corrections, suggestions or outright rejections accordingly. I’ve had peer review articles accepted and rejected, and seen the astonishing detail and expertise that goes into the process, and it makes me very thankful for the very hardworking journal and series editors who keep scholarship at high standards. Intense, and very valuable.
9. Content enhancement. Working out how to say what the author wants to say better than s/he can. This is the holy grail of editing, and often involves many of the elements above. All four of my books have been written with an editor, Richard Herkes, who makes my sentences, books and chapters better. The trick is that editors themselves have to be excellent writers for this to work; otherwise, it quickly degenerates into #1. Gold dust.
Any I’ve missed?
More Holiday Reading
In an attempt to cling onto the last vestiges of my holiday, and following Andrew's example from yesterday, here's one paragraph/extract that stood out to me from my holiday reading.
The book - a fixture on my ‘must read’ list for too many years - was Jackie Pullinger’s Chasing the Dragon.
It was, as I knew it would be, a fascinating and inspiring read; a window into a world far beyond my experience and comprehension.
It was, as I suspected it would be, so packed with the miraculous works of God in such an extraordinary situation that I struggled to connect it with my world and my surroundings. The stories of hardened gang members, drug addicts and prostitutes calling on the name of Jesus after a brief conversation with Jackie and immediately being flooded with the Spirit, speaking in tongues, interpreting each other’s prayers and being healed and freed painlessly from drug addiction just doesn’t sound like the way God uses me, or the way things work in SW1*.
Biographies like this always strike me as true, but not real.
The section that impacted me, though, was from the introduction. Jackie writes:
Of course, ‘Chasing the Dragon’ backfired on me. I had written it in the hope of recording history and inspiring hope. Having disposed of one decade I had hoped to get on with more life. Instead I was invited to retell the story again and again, whereas I had meant that you, who read it, might see that the same God could impart His heart and His power in your city and you would write your own books.
... There are many more adventures to be had. There are many more battles to be fought. It would be such fun to be in them rather than read of them.
Go! Write your own books. Go!
Have these few lines changed me? Not quite. Not yet.
Have they challenged me? Undoubtedly.
Read it. It will astonish you afresh with the power of our God - then let me know when you write your book…
Holiday Reading: Five Top Paragraphs
A number of writers and bloggers make a habit of posting on the books they intend to read over their summer holidays. Al Mohler's annual list is particularly well-known (it usually has a lot to do with wars), but it's a relatively widespread trend. Personally, I find the idea of posting about books before you've read them rather strange - there are, after all, a number of tomes which I would have recommended before reading them, but certainly not after - so I decided to do the opposite, and post briefly on the books and articles I had actually read. Having been given the enormous privilege of staying in Matt and Grace Hosier's house, which is not only beautifully kept and situated but also full of interesting books and periodicals, I took it upon myself to read a whole bunch of stuff I wouldn't usually read. On the basis of Piper's maxim that books don't change people but paragraphs do, I thought I would summarise them by quoting a paragraph from each.
The first is from Rodney Stark’s provocative book about the Crusades, God’s Battalions, and pulls no punches on the misrepresentation and overapologetic tone that bedevils this particular period of history: “To sum up the prevailing wisdom: during the Crusades, an expansionist, imperialistic Christendom brutalised, looted, and colonised a tolerant and peaceful Islam. Not so. As will be seen, the Crusades were precipitated by Islamic provocations: by centuries of bloody attempts to colonise the West and by sudden new attacks on Christian pilgrims and holy paces. Although the Crusades were initiated by a plea from the pope, this had nothing to do with hopes of converting Islam. Nor were the Crusades organised and led by surplus sonship but by the heads of great families who were fully aware that the costs of crusading would far exceed the very modest material rewards that could be expected; most went at immense personal cost, some of them knowingly bankrupting themselves to go. Moreover, the crusader kingdoms that they established in the Holy Land, and that stood for nearly two centuries, were not colonies sustained by local exactions; rather, they required immense subsidies from Europe.”
Turning to contemporary politics, I was pleased to see Slavoj Žižek express an unusually Christian conclusion on political freedom, in the London Review of Books: “The general rule is that when a revolt against an oppressive half-democratic regime begins, as with the Middle East in 2011, it is easy to mobilise large crowds with slogans - for democracy, against corruption, etc. But we are soon faced with more difficult choices. When the revolt succeeds in its initial goal, we come to realise that what is really bothering us (our lack of freedom, our humiliation, corruption, poor prospects) persists in a new guise, so that we are forced to recognise that there was a flaw in the goal itself. This may mean coming to see that democracy can itself be a form of un-freedom, or that we must demand more than merely political democracy: social and economic life must be democratised too. In short, what we first took as a failure fully to apply a noble principle (democratic freedom) is in fact a failure inherent in the principle itself.” Žižek is better at analysing problems than suggesting solutions - which political theorists aren’t? - but he makes a good point here.
Also in the LRB, I came across a great argument for Keynesianism from David Runciman, off the back of the shale gas revolution (which, astonishingly, looks set to make America a net exporter of energy by 2017): “In fact, it was state investment in hydraulic fracturing in the 1970s that laid the groundwork for the current boom. This is something that champions of the free market invariably ignore: far-reaching technological change is almost always a consequence of massive public investment at the outset, often fuelled by the imperatives of a national political crisis. As William Janeway argues in an important new book, technological revolutions depend on ostensibly wasteful government spending to do the heavy lifting at the beginning; the market won’t take the risks. Only later will the private sector step in to compete for the spoils, producing the inevitable bubbles but also the marketable products. It happened with the IT revolution, which was kick started by vast government spending on military R&D during the Cold War, and it’s happened with fracking, thanks to the heightened security fears set in train by the oil crisis of the 1970s. Crises induce governments to throw money at the wall in the hope something will stick. But when products finally reach the market, often a generation or more later, the role of government is forgotten.” Given that I hail from Balcombe, the village at the centre of the fracking brouhaha in the UK, this was of particular interest to me.
Just in case you think I was only reading lefties, I also took the chance to catch up with The Economist. You can perhaps imagine my surprise when they slammed Reza Aslan (whose book, it appears, was reviewed by absolutely everybody in the two weeks I was away) for discounting the possibility that prophecy happens: “How people respond to prophets and their claims is an existential choice, but a belief that prophets exist - that not all concepts can be reduced to historical context - is central to any religious faith. This means that appreciating the possibility of prophecy (whatever one chooses to make of it) is vital to the work of a religious historian. Mr Aslan has shown elsewhere that he understands this, but there is not much sign of this insight in his latest book.”
And finally, since we were on holiday in the part of the UK that has arguably the best beaches in the nation (I’m excluding the Western Isles, since nobody I know has ever been there), I was moved to reflection and hilarity in equal measure by this from Bill Bryson: “Among the many thousands of things that I have never been able to understand, one in particular stands out. That is the question of who was the first person who stood by a pile of sand and said, ‘You know, I bet if we took some of this and mixed it with a little potash and heated it, we could make a material that would be solid and yet transparent. We could call it glass.’ Call me obtuse, but you could stand me on a beach till the end of time and never would it occur to me to try to make it into windows.” Indeed.
The Best Kind of Dog Food
You know those adverts for dog food that show rich, meaty chunks, in bite-sized pieces, smothered in a delicious gravy? That's what God*Stories, by Andrew Wilson, reminds me of.
There is real intellectual and theological depth in God*Stories, making it a meaty, satisfying read, yet the chapters are short enough to be devoured easily in a standard quiet-time. And the gravy? The gravy is the wonderfully warm, witty writing. There are plenty of anecdotes (how many countries did Andrew visit while writing the book?), and helpful illustrations, making the God stories both flavoursome and memorable.
The whole thing is excellent, but the stand-out section for me was ‘Act Five: Restoration and Hope’. I’m far too critical to give praise readily, but the chapters entitled ‘The Fall of Babylon’ and ‘Our Citizenship is in Heaven’ are strong contenders for the best things I have ever read on any topic ever.
If you’ve ever wondered why you should bother going to church (or tried to explain to someone else why they should), read this extract from the latter chapter:
The church is an outpost of God’s empire: a community of people whose passport is stamped [or issued by] “heaven” but who continue to live in a foreign land - earth - with the aim of making that foreign land more like home. We take heaven seriously, and live with different aims and different values from the people around us. We also take our citizenship seriously, so instead of hiding under the bed and waiting for rescue (or the rapture?), we live in the world with the intention of changing it…
Living in a foreign country is exhausting, and sometimes discouraging, so God designed the local church: little outposts of heaven, scattered throughout the world, where people with the same passports can regroup, speak their home language, be encouraged and equip one another as missionaries to the world around them. Mission is hard, and these outposts are vital for the citizens of heaven. ... For citizens of heaven, [local churches] are the most empowering and refreshing places on earth.
If you don’t find church ‘vital’, ‘empowering’ and ‘refreshing’ - if it has never occurred to you that church is supposed to be those things - perhaps the problem is less with the way things are done in your church and more with the way you’re living in the world. A challenge to us all!
The Anabaptist Challenge
The success of Zwingli’s Reformation was, from the very outset dependent on support from the Zurich magistrates. The Bishop of Constance was outraged at the implied criticism the 'Affair of the Sausages' made of the Church, but when he voiced his protests he found that the city’s ruling council was quick to line up behind Zwingli. When Catholic preachers began to attack Zwingli’s criticism of the veneration of the saints they were given short shrift and simply told to preach Biblical sermons like Zwingli. Zwingli received further endorsement from the city Council on 10th October when he was re-appointed as a preacher and, four months later was given the opportunity to make the case for the evangelical position in a public debate.
The public debate held by the council in January 1523 was a high water mark in the Zurich Reformation. As a debate it was something of a charade, because the Council decreed that arguments be confined only to Scripture which somewhat weakened the Catholic cause! However, the acceptance of the 67 articles summarizing Zwingli’s position meant that Zurich now became an evangelical city. At this stage the evangelicals were still united but this was to be very short-lived. The fact that Zwingli’s vision was of Church and State working hand in hand in the defence and propagation of the Gospel meant that division lay just around the corner.
A second debate was held in October 1523, this time to settle the issue of images and statues of saints in the Church. Radical followers of Zwingli had already begun to take matters into their own hands by committing acts of iconoclasm. Even at this early stage of Reformation future Anabaptists like Conrad Grebel had rejected the city Council’s authority in spiritual affairs. Divisions which were to emerge in the next couple of years over believers’ baptism were rooted in the more fundamental issue of what constitutes the Church. If, as Zwingli believed, the Church embraces the whole of society (the medieval view of corpus christianum), then it seems only reasonable that the magistrates, as God’s representatives, inputted on spiritual decision-making. On the issue of images, for example, Zwingli and the town Council were in agreement theologically on their danger. Zwingli was more than happy, therefore, to recognize the Council’s right to decide on the timing of the removal of images since the Council had a clear God-given duty and responsibility to maintain law and order. Zwingli’s view of the Church was as something akin to Israel in the Old Testament, with himself as a sort of Prophet Samuel and the Council as the newly established Israelite monarchy.
There was disquiet in the ranks over iconoclasm, but as Zwingli and his radical supporters seemed to be still moving in the same direction (ie images were idolatrous) the more fundamental disagreement over the nature of the Church remained masked. The decisive break came in December 1523. Zwingli had planned to hold the city’s first evangelical communion on Christmas Day but the Council got cold feet, fearing that this was too much too soon. Not surprisingly Zwingli was happy to go along with this. For him, the decision was not of fundamental importance; since the theological issue had been settled it was better to wait rather than to destroy the unity of worship in the city. However, for the radicals this was proof that Zwingli was a false prophet who had made unacceptable concessions. Within a few months they had moved ground to question infant baptism. They lost a debate on this issue on 17 January 1525 but, only four days later, they pressed ahead and began to re-baptize members of the group.
As we have already observed, believers’ baptism was not the decisive factor that separated Zwingli and his radical supporters. The crucial issue was ecclesiology. If the Church embraces the whole of society as Zwingli believed, then infant baptism is a logical consequence. Of course, this was not a position that Zwingli alone asserted. The “magisterial” reformers – Luther, Calvin, Bucer, Bullnger, Oecolampadius etc etc – all defended this view of baptism. Society was, they believed, essentially Christian, albeit a somewhat doctrinally confused and sub-standard version of the faith. The Anabaptist view was altogether different. Their ecclesiology was one of a “gathered Church”, a Church into which individuals consciously opted via believers’ baptism and membership was maintained and the Church kept pure through discipline. Such a Church was very definitely, in the view of the radicals, outside the control of the magistrates. Authority lay with the congregation and with elders appointed from within the congregation.
It quickly became clear that the Anabaptists, as the radicals became known, posed a serious political and doctrinal threat to the Zurich Reformation led by Zwingli and the Zurich magistrates. The authorities responded by imprisoning or banishing all the radical leaders. By 1526 the death sentence had been introduced for all Anabaptists. As something of a sick joke, the method was by drowning. By January 1527 Felix Manz had become the first of many Anabaptist martyrs for their faith in the sixteenth century.
Church history, like much of life, is messy! Much as I admire Luther, Zwingli, Calvin and the other magisterial reformers, I am embarrassed and ashamed of their treatment of the Anabaptists. Fundamentally, I also think that Anabaptist ecclesiology is nearer to a New Testament model than the Protestant reformers who trumpeted Sola Scriptura so confidently. Sola Scriptura sounds great, but as soon as you get to the tricky issue of interpreting Scripture the waters become much muddier. However, as I have expressed in previous blogs, there is also much that concerns me about early forms of Anabaptism. The early Anabaptists were frequently violent, apocalyptic, had poor Christology and a muddled and confused theology of justification. These are not inconsiderable shortcomings!
Why is life so complicated?
A Question for Piper’s Critics
The question is familiar, at least to anyone who has met a biblically literate sceptic: "How can God wipe out men, women and children in the Old Testament?" This answer, from John Piper, shocks many with its bluntness and its implicit theology: "It's right for God to slaughter women and children any time he pleases. God gives life and he takes life. Everybody who dies, dies because God wills that they die." Eeek.
Unsurprisingly, that answer has produced expostulations of anger, astonishment and scornful criticism, not just of Piper but of Calvinism, inerrancy, biblical conservatism and anything else with which Piper is associated. Pete Enns shakes his head in pitying disbelief. Brian Zahn compares it to suicide bombing while shouting “Allah Akbar”, and says it entirely deserves the scorn sceptics will undoubtedly pour upon it. Many of us, intuitively inclined to give Piper the benefit of the doubt but nonetheless prompted to wince by the direct and robust way in which he answers, may find ourselves torn, either because we suspect he might be wrong, or (more uncomfortably) because we suspect he might be right but hope he isn’t. So without attempting to resolve or engage with all the issues here - and I’ve written or linked to numerous articles on this over the last year or so, as well as establishing my pacifist credentials on several occasions - here’s a question that Piper’s critics on this issue need to think seriously about. How many acts of slaughter constitute a mass slaughter?
“Immediately an angel of the Lord struck him down, because he did not give God the glory, and he was eaten by worms and breathed his last.” (Acts 12:23)
“And the anger of the LORD was kindled against Uzzah, and God struck him down there because of his error, and he died there beside the ark of God.” (2 Sam 6:7)
“Immediately she fell down at his feet and breathed her last. When the young men came in they found her dead, and they carried her out and buried her beside her husband.” (Acts 5:9-10)
“And fire came out from before the LORD and consumed them, and they died before the LORD.” (Lev 10:2)
“For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.” (1 Cor 11:29-30)
One man’s household?
“And he who is taken with the devoted things shall be burned with fire, he and all that he has, because he has transgressed the covenant of the LORD, and because he has done an outrageous thing in Israel.” (Josh 7:15)
“And the Spirit of the LORD rushed upon him, and he went down to Ashkelon and struck down thirty men of the town and took their spoil and gave the garments to those who had told the riddle. In hot anger he went back to his father’s house.” (Jdg 14:19)
“And he turned around, and when he saw them, he cursed them in the name of the LORD. And two she-bears came out of the woods and tore forty-two of the boys.” (2 Kin 2:24)
“And he struck some of the men of Beth-shemesh, because they looked upon the ark of the LORD. He struck seventy men of them, and the people mourned because the LORD had struck the people with a great blow.” (1 Sam 6:19)
Two hundred and fifty?
“And fire came out from the LORD and consumed the 250 men offering the incense.” (Num 16:35)
“And as the Egyptians fled into it, the LORD threw the Egyptians into the midst of the sea. The waters returned and covered the chariots and the horsemen; of all the host of Pharaoh that had followed them into the sea, not one of them remained.” (Ex 14:27-28; cf. v7)
“And the sons of Levi did according to the word of Moses. And that day about three thousand men of the people fell.” (Ex 32:28)
The entire city of Sodom?
“On the day when Lot went out from Sodom, fire and sulphur rained from heaven and destroyed them all.” (Luke 18:29)
Twenty three thousand?
“We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day.” (1 Cor 10:8)
All the firstborn sons in Egypt?
“At midnight the LORD struck down all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sat on his throne to the firstborn of the captive who was in the dungeon, and all the firstborn of the livestock.” (Ex 12:29)
One hundred and eighty five thousand?
“And the angel of the LORD went out and struck down 185,000 in the camp of the Assyrians. And when people arose early in the morning, behold, these were all dead bodies.” (Isa 37:36)
The known world (minus eight)?
“He blotted out every living thing that was on the face of the ground, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens. They were blotted out from the earth. Only Noah was left, and those who were with him in the ark.” (Gen 7:23)
You’ll notice that these examples come from both Old and New Testaments, and most of the Old Testament ones are quoted in the New. You’ll also notice that if we were to strike them (and the many other texts like them) from the record, we’d have no flood, no exodus, no judgments in the wilderness, no conquest narratives, and no historically reliable account of the patriarchs, the united monarchy, the divided kingdom, the exile of Israel and Judah, or the early church. Assuming we’re not prepared to go there, my question is: where, and on what basis, do we draw the line between “acceptable acts of divine judgment” and “indefensible acts of mass slaughter”? There are plenty of other questions, of course - acceptable to whom? is it ever legitimate for God to kill someone for their sin? who decides when it is or isn’t? isn’t what Jesus said about hell fiercer than any of these stories? why does Paul say that people who sin deserve to die? and so on - but one is enough for now.
Believe Jesus: Do Good Things
Christianity is a community activity with a responsibility on all of us to help all of us! Moreover, there is meant to be some forcefulness in the way we stir each other up. We are meant to “consider” how we do this, which means we need to think about it and be intentional about it.
Love and good works = being available
Often God gives us opportunities to serve at inconvenient times! Lots of Jesus’ miracles happened due to interruptions, but Jesus was prepared to be interrupted in order to serve people. John Wesley’s motto was: “Do all the good you can by all the means you can by all the ways you can in all the places you can and at all the times you can to all the people you can as long as you ever can.” What keeps us from this kind of availability? Ecclesiastes 11:4 says, “He who observes the wind will not sow and he who regards the clouds will not reap.” What application does this have to our availability to serve others?
Love and good works = being grateful
Our culture teaches us to Compete, Compare and Criticize, whereas Jesus taught us that, “The greatest among you shall be your servant.” Gratitude needs to be rooted in a strong sense of what Jesus has done for us. What things tend to drain you of gratitude? How do you best cultivate gratitude?
Love and good works = being faithful
God is faithful, and we are called to be like him. The promise of our salvation and of future rewards is a great motivation in this: “God is not unjust so as to overlook your work and the love that you have shown for his name in serving the saints” (Hbs 6:10). This means that very often there is a difference between significance and prominence. It is significant that someone empties the bins, but doing this doesn’t normally get much prominence!
Love and good works = meeting together
Meeting together is a key part of helping one another to believe Jesus! While it is technically possible to be a Christian and not go to church, this would be like being married and never going home – it would actually be abandonment. So keep going!
(Thanks to Rick Warrant for the headings for this one!)
Peter Tatchell Agrees with Matthew Hosier
I never thought I’d see this, but a rapprochement between radical gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell and Christian sexual ethicist Matt Hosier seems to be taking place. In a series of posts here, Matt has made it clear that referring to “same-sex marriage” as if it is about “marriage equality” is ridiculous, given the crucial areas in which, even according to the legislative language, there are enormous differences between the four-thousand-year-old version and the four-month-old version. What surprised me was that Peter Tatchell, writing in the New Statesman, would agree so emphatically. He lists six ways in which “same-sex marriage” is not equal to traditional marriage:
1. Pension rights are different.
2. Opposite sex civil partnerships are still off-limits.
3. Non-consummation and adultery are not grounds for annulment in “same-sex marriage”.
4. The marriages of transgendered people who had marriages annulled to change sex have not been restored.
5. The Church of England’s quadruple lock applies.
6. Other faith groups can be more restrictive on “same-sex marriages”, too.
So there you have it: SSM and traditional marriage, despite the government’s best efforts to make them so, are still not equal. It reminds me of that brilliant scene with Allison Janney and Felicity Huffman in The West Wing:
CJ: The President’s not going to want to end a bipartisan breakfast with the Republicans speaking from one place and the Democrats…
ANN: And the Majority Leader’s not going to stand at a cardboard podium in your front yard while you stand in the White House Press briefing room and with good reason.
CJ: Which is?
ANN: I don’t think they’re on equal footing.
CJ: My boss and your boss?
CJ: I don’t think they are either.
Waiting Here For Hugh
I encountered a puzzling song recently. Melodic, dynamic, even beautiful - from a musical point of view, a bit of a modern classic - but from a lyrical point of view, decidedly puzzling. Like many contemporary worship songs, particularly those performed by breathy American men, it was addressed not to God, nor to any member of the Trinity, but to a certain Hugh (also the subject of "Hugh and I were made to worship", "We have all we need in Hugh", and so on). More baffling was the fact that, even after deciphering this, I couldn't quite figure out what it was about. Despite its enormous popularity, it seemed to be to be somewhat mystifyingly worded; not as mystifying as "so I'll walk upon salvation, my soul now to stand", but mystifying nonetheless.
For the uninitiated, the song begins with a rather cryptic opening line -
If faith can move the mountains, let the mountains move
We come with expectation, waiting here for Hugh
Waiting here for Hugh
- which makes it sound like we are waiting for Hugh to come and do something miraculous for us. This may well be what it means, since the ancient language of “waiting for” a deity is often about waiting for the deity to come through and rescue his people, usually in the context of suffering and difficulty, and Hugh is clearly a deity in this case (although admittedly, exactly what the mountain-moving metaphor refers to in Hugh’s case is unclear). The chorus then clarifies that we are waiting in a worship context -
Waiting here for Hugh
With our hands lifted high in praise
And it’s Hugh we adore
Singing Hallel, Hugh, Ya!
- which, again, might be about waiting for miraculous deliverance, and praising Hugh in the meantime. But the next verse changes tack completely:
You’re everything you promise, your faithfulness is true
And we’re desperate for your presence. All we need is Hugh
Waiting here for Hugh
This, rather than making it sound like we are waiting for Hugh to work a miracle for us, implies that we are waiting for Hugh to actually show up in the building (which I presume is intended by the language of being “desperate for your presence”). Which prompts the question: is Hugh here (such that we are waiting for him to do something?), or is he not (such that we are waiting for him to appear?) And if we are using “presence” language to refer, not to Hugh’s actual presence, but to our awareness or experience of his presence - as I imagine might be the case - then it seems strange to me, even counterproductive, to sing lyrics that make it sound so much like Hugh is not actually there. So I confess to being a little confused. And I wonder if the thousands who sing it know (a) whether Hugh is in fact there, or (b) what exactly they are expecting to happen next?
Perhaps they are. In which case, could they tell me? And also, could they tell me how to punctuate the middle eight of “Mighty to Save” (“for the glory of the risen King Jesus. Shine your light ...” or “for the glory of the risen King. Jesus, shine your light ...”)? And whether we should use a definite or indefinite article in “The Splendour of a/the King”? And whether the world is reclaimed for God’s glory by our spreading the word or by his return? And what “ineffably sublime” means? And ...
The Paradox of the American Right
Here's David Bentley Hart:
“In the end, politics is the servant of cultural forces, not their master. I often wonder if it is much more than a comforting fiction that, by choosing between two parties that frequently operate like large marketing conglomerates, selling much the same product in different packaging, we thereby take charge of the future. It may make us feel free and powerful, in the same way that shopping does, but the one great lesson to be learned from the social history of America over the past several decades is that culture evolves as it will, and it is not the electoral success of a political party, but the verdict of the culture at large, that ultimately determines the shape of civic reality. A political party can hasten or delay the inevitable, volens nolens, but politics is merely an expression of cultural forces far deeper than ideology or public policy can ever reach.
“It has often been noted, for instance, that over the past few decades the political “right” has won the argument on economic issues while the “left” has won the argument on social issues. In either case, naturally, things may now and then dash forward a mite too precipitously, which leads to a predictable but only partial retreat—three steps forward, two steps back—but the general drift of culture is quite inexorable. Ours is a libertarian society that rests upon an economic foundation of consumerism. Late modernity is the triumph of a kind of polymorphous voluntarism, with regard to both material and immaterial goods. Such a culture must necessarily gravitate towards an ever more indeterminate and minimalist view of civic and private morality; its morality is primarily one of toleration rather than prescription.
“It may therefore be no more than a poignant paradox that, on account of the vagaries and historical incidentals of political affiliation, many of those who argue most passionately for the unhindered free market are also those who most keenly lament the decay of the moral and social consensus of the past, the rise of an ever coarser and more permissive popular culture, and the disintegration of the nuclear family. But the modern market is sustained by consumerism, and a consumerist culture thrives on the fabrication of an ever greater diversity of desires that may be guiltlessly pursued; such a culture irresistibly demands that the province of inhibition, prohibition, shame, and local loyalties become ever smaller. Not to sound too Marxist (or, perhaps, too “incarnational”) about this, but the ideological shape of a society cannot be divorced from its material basis…
“Anyway, I expect the course of things is set for the near future: a comfortable combination of authoritarianism and libertarianism; a provident, intrusive, and imperious state allied to a corporate culture that encourages, gratifies, and endlessly amplifies an amoral appetite for the trivial and ephemeral; extraordinary governmental power wielded peremptorily in the name of endless warfare abroad and of ever more perfect civil order and social justice at home; culture replaced by advertising, shared custom by private impulse, community by television; public life reduced to the bare dialectic of state power and individual rights. There may be a path open that leads beyond that state of things—a path not primarily political, but rather cultural and spiritual—but it will not be easy to find, and it will be a very long march indeed.”
The Sausage Revolution
Zwingli’s Zurich Reformation was by no means simply a “rip off” of what Martin Luther was doing in Wittenberg. Zwingli himself was always keen to emphasize that it was God’s word, not Luther which was his teacher and there is every reason to believe him. Zwingli drew much more on Christian humanism than did Luther. Like Erasmus, he was especially strong in exegetical methodology. He was keen to distinguish between the natural and non-literal senses of Scripture. Like Erasmus, he was a big fan of the Church Fathers Jerome and Origen. For example, he went through Origen’s Homilies, marking passages in them which gave a spiritual or symbolic interpretation of the Lord’s Supper. Finally, like Erasmus, he strongly emphasized the “otherness” of God claiming “We know as little about God as a beetle about man."
Having begun his new ministry in 1519 with an innovative Erasmian approach to preaching, Zwingli had advanced beyond Christian humanism by 1520. In that year he renounced his papal pension and was beginning to read, interpret and evaluate Luther. Like many of his contemporaries, Zwingli was particularly drawn to Luther’s Freedom of the Christian (published November 1520). If we are justified by faith and not by works then we are no longer bound to obey canon law. Right at the start of the treatise Luther declares:
A Christian man is the most free lord of all, and subject to none; a Christian man is the most dutiful servant of all, and subject to everyone.
Taking and applying this principle to his Zurich context, Zwingli developed a clear sense of the liberating grace of God in Christ. This theology persuaded a group of his supporters to deliberately defy canon law during the Lenten fast of 1522 and deliberately ate two smoked sausages at the house of a local printer, Christoph Froschauer. This may all sound a little trivial, even silly, to us, but to them it was a deliberate declaration of their liberty in the Gospel. Zwingli was present at the event which became known, of course, as the “Affair of the Sausages”, but he did not actually eat the sausages himself. However, he defended the defiance of his supporters in a sermon on 23 March arguing that, since breaking a fast was not a sin, those involved could not be punished by the Church:
To sum up briefly: if you want to fast, do so; if you do not want to eat meat, don’t eat it; but allow Christians a free choice. If you are a person of leisure, you should fast often and abstain from food that excites you; the worker moderates his desires by hoeing and ploughing in the field. You say, ‘but the idlers will eat meat without needing to.’ The answer is that these very same people fill themselves with even richer foods, which enflame them even more than the highly-seasoned highly-spiced meats.
If you would be a Christian at heart, act in this way. If the spirit of your belief teaches you thus, then fast, but grant also your neighbour the privilege of Christian liberty, and fear God greatly, if you have transgressed his laws, nor make what man has invented greater before God than what God himself has commanded.
The grace of God is so foundational to our understanding of the Gospel. Without it, we have no Gospel at all (Galatians 1:6). But we need to be crystal clear as to what grace is and is not. Neither Luther nor Zwingli uses grace as an excuse for licence. The battles that were fought in the Reformation to establish the doctrine of grace in the 1520s needed to be re-fought in the 1970s and 80s. I grew up in a Church that preached salvation by grace but living the Christian life quickly became pettifogging rule-keeping. Today, however, I think there are different battles to fight. We need to preach grace for all it’s worth. I am not suggesting that we dumb down that message one little bit. The battle for grace needs to be fought in every generation. However, as Andrew Wilson warned six months ago, there are some today who have perverted grace into hyper-grace. This can have huge impact on our churches. A few months ago I asked a pastor-friend of mine what was the greatest pastoral challenge he was facing right now. He explained that in his church he was increasingly finding that there were a significant number of students coming from a variety of different church backgrounds who in lifestyle and conduct had sold out to a hyper-grace message. They knew, he said, what the Bible taught on sexual ethics but were quite happy to sleep with their boyfriend/girlfriend because in their home church “Everyone was doing it and no one took that bit of the Bible seriously.” As Paul makes abundantly clear in Titus 2:12 grace teaches us to say “No!” Grace and holiness are not mutually exclusive. They are actually part of the same Gospel!
Autonomous Beings or Helpless Puppets?
The BBC ‘News’ website yesterday carried a feature about a household of four people in a ‘polyamorous’ relationship:
Charlie is talking excitedly about a first date she went on the night before.
Next to her on the sofa is her husband of six years, Tom. And on the other side of him is Sarah, who’s been in a relationship with Tom for the last five years. Sarah’s fiancé, Chris, is in the kitchen making a cup of tea.
The two women are also in a full-blown relationship, while the two men are just good friends. Together, they make a polyamorous family and share a house in Sheffield.
The article is, as one would expect from the BBC, entirely unjudgemental about the arrangement. It is interested in how the arrangement works, but is, like Sarah, Chris, Charlie and Tom, chirpy and upbeat about any potential difficulties.
It glosses over (or utterly avoids) some fairly obvious questions: is there a hierarchy of relationships – ie, do you have a greater responsibility to the person you’re married or engaged to than to any of the others? Sarah and Chris, are you actually going to get married? What will be the nature of your vows if you do? What if some of you want kids? What if some of you split up?
These are essentially practical matters, though, which the foursome would doubtless shrug off as they did the others, saying that all relationships take work, negotiation and good communication, so simply having more people involved doesn’t make a fundamental difference.
The core issue is revealed right at the end, when the four apparently chorus in unison, “But we don’t have a choice. We’re in love with each other.”
This is one of the most firmly held beliefs of Western culture – ‘falling in love’ is an irresistible force and cannot – should not – be restrained.
I’ve written previously on my personal blog about how we see this manifested in popular culture, such as an episode of The West Wing.
Charlie, an aide to President Bartlett, is asked what he thinks about the case of a fighter pilot who has been placed under military arrest for committing adultery. “I don’t think you can reasonably expect someone to control who they fall in love with,” he says, and his comment is taken as a wise and helpful one. If she’s fallen in love, well, that’s something out of her hands and we’re all going to have to live with it.
Except, of course, that we are not puppets. We are not slaves to our emotions or impulses, and most people would be offended if you suggested they were. We like to think of ourselves as autonomous, rational beings, making choices based on evidence. Those who don’t live this way are considered either morally deficient or physically or mentally ill.
If someone heavily overweight says ‘I just can’t stop eating’, we consider them weak-willed and a drain on the health system. If we meet an alcoholic, we (rightly) seek to help them conquer their disease. If a friend is fighting depression, we don’t think their emotions are king and should be allowed to dictate their actions, we go into battle alongside them and speak words of truth and hope into their darkness.
But love, ah, love is different. Falling in love doesn’t carry automatic and inevitable health risks. Being in love isn’t always negative. Love is hard to define, hard to quantify, hard to measure. And feelings of love come and go.
And when they go, then love becomes a choice – you choose whether to work at it or to walk away, but the former is both difficult and counter-cultural. In this area, for some reason, our culture gives its approval to doing what feels good and right in the moment. Though we may respect self-discipline, will-power and self-control in some areas of life, we disparage them when it comes to relationships.
This is at least in part because we don’t have a compelling cultural narrative that celebrates the goods of commitment and monogamy. If it exists at all it is found in a utilitarian argument that stable, heterosexual marriages are better for children’s emotional health and academic success, better for the economy, and build a better, stronger society. All those things are true, but they are all vulnerable to the counter claims of single parents or same-sex couples with flourishing children, or the economic strength of a nation with looser moral boundaries, or the societal collapse of one with a stronger emphasis on marriage.
Monogamous, heterosexual commitment isn’t only good because it brings about positive social outcomes. It is good because it is inherently good. If it didn’t contribute to the good of our society it would still be good. Kindness isn’t only good if it makes people like you and act kindly back. Generosity isn’t only good if it improves the lives of those to whom you are generous. Good things are good because they are good, not because they bring benefits.
This is a message that our society desperately needs to hear, but which is incredibly difficult to communicate. We’re such a rational, cause-and-effect, utilitarian people, that saying ‘you can’t just follow your heart’ simply doesn’t make sense. But the truth of it is there, under the surface, all around us.
Take the BBC article above, for instance. Open though the polyamorous relationship described is, its participants reserve the right to veto any new relationships - so perhaps you do have a choice about who you fall in love with and what you do about it, after all.
The Unintended Consequences of Missional
In principle, leading a church in a missional direction should be straightforward. (1) Find out which activities and programmes help people who aren't Christians encounter God, and which ones don't. (2) Stop doing all the things that don't help. (3) Invest all your time and resources into the things that do. (4) Sit back and enjoy the results. Boomtown.
In practice, things are not so simple, in large part because of the law of unintended consequences. People are complex; groups of people are more so; churches, which comprise lots of highly diverse individuals and groups within them, are almost unimaginably intricate. You make a decision here, and three years later it comes back to bite you in a completely different department. You flap your wings over here, and there’s a hurricane over there a few weeks later. Church life, made up as it is of a huge number of interactions between mentally, emotionally and spiritually complex creatures, is full of unintended consequences.
Here’s a couple of highly overdrawn examples.
A local church, seized by a passion to reach unchurched children and their families with the gospel - after all, building children is easier than fixing adults - starts a series of Kidz Klubs in local council estates. It invests significant financial and volunteer resources in a relatively intensive programme over many years, with buses going out into the estates every week, regular home visits, a team of fifty people, including many teenagers, and a consistently high profile in the church at large. But over time, it is noticed that for all the good work being done, very few children and families are becoming Christians through the programme. Hundreds of children come, but few stick past the age of eleven, and of those that do, many fade away as teenagers because their families continue as they always have. As a result, after much soul-searching and with considerable sadness, it is decided to end the initiative, and redeploy the money and the volunteers elsewhere, especially into their newly attractional (and missional) Sunday meetings. The church doubles in attendance over the next five years.
But there are unintended consequences. The buses and home visiting, which in some parts of the town were the entire face of the church, stop altogether and leave many streets without any Christian contact at all. The teenage volunteers, who had been being effectively discipled in mission and service through the programme, do not experience the same levels of personal growth elsewhere. All sorts of leaders in the church, having been forced to engage on a weekly basis with the lives of people very unlike them, are able to revert to living amongst people they naturally have things in common with, and their cutting edge is softened as a result. The church as a whole had benefited from, and been emboldened by, being told monthly about the needs and challenges of entirely unchurched people, and the closure of the Kidz Klub limits the opportunities for this significantly. The net effect is that a decision made to increase the church’s missional effectiveness has various side-effects which (for a season) reduce it.
Another local church decides that, because they do not want to alienate and confuse visitors, they will discourage various charismatic practices which have, in the church’s past, been fairly typical. Speaking in languages and interpreting them are publicly prohibited; spontaneous contributions during sung worship from “the floor” are actively restricted; extended ministry times are constrained; floaty charismatic songs with incomprehensible metaphors are jettisoned in favour of gospel-centred ones; prophetic words, when they occasionally come, are described as “impressions” and only come through the accredited leaders. In other words, in the spirit of Paul’s logic in 1 Corinthians 14, those who are not Christians are protected from the potentially odder features of charismatic life.
Yet, again, there are unintended consequences. The main one is that the church as a whole, and particularly those who have been around for a few years or more, start to feel increasingly restricted and uptight in their corporate gatherings. From an environment of freedom and abandon, in which the spiritual and emotional security people experience leads to plenty of risk-taking - especially in prophecy and healing - it feels more and more like people are being evaluated, and mistakes (an inevitable part of any risk-taking culture) are no longer acceptable. Gradually, this uptightness seeps into everyday life as well: fewer and fewer people step out courageously to prophesy over, or pray for healing for, their unbelieving friends, and more and more people express scepticism about that sort of thing even happening in the first place. A few mavericks on the fringe of the church continue, but after five years of missional leadership, the mainstream has become almost entirely devoid of expectation for God to break in suddenly and powerfully in spiritual power (which, of course, also affects their enthusiasm for evangelism). Again, decisions taken to increase the church’s missional effectiveness have unwittingly reduced it.
As I say, both of these portraits are overdrawn to make a point. Things are rarely so simple; at any given time, some people are growing in their evangelistic zeal and others are shrinking, and ultimately salvation in the church is an act of God anyway. Both stories, however, would be recognisable to people in the churches in question (one in the UK and one in the US), and both illustrate the unintended consequences of going “missional”. If nothing else, they may serve as cautionary tales to those who would make mission-minded generalisations (“growing churches all find ...”, “all unbelievers hate it when ...”, and so on), and see cultural transitions within complex organisms like churches as simple. They rarely are.
Believe Jesus: Confidence
Confidence is important and a major theme of the letter to the Hebrews. Confidence gets things done, but as Christians we need to be clear that the confidence we have is in Christ, and not in our own skill or charisma.
Confidence because of what Jesus has done
• the true priest who atones and intercedes for us
• the true temple where we come into the presence of God
• the true light – the shadows are gone, reality has been made plain
• the true manna who feeds his people with the life of God
• the true vine into whom we are grafted as part of the people of God
• the true curtain, now flung open!
Jesus is alive! The way to him is open! Be confident!
Confidence to walk up to God
No-one should be able to walk in on God – for anyone other than the High Priest to have walked into the most holy place (and even for the High Priest only on the Day of Atonement) would have spelt instant death. But because of what Jesus has done we have confidence (freedom, permission, authorisation) to do just that. The gospel is radically inclusive – anyone can now come to God through Jesus, which means the gospel is especially good news for the marginalised.
Confidence of faith
Because we have transformed hearts we are enabled to believe that God is good and will do as he has promised. Becoming a Christian means a complete transformation; it is not merely a life-style choice but a complete turning around. God grants us faith to try difficult things and find our confidence in Him. Even when our faith is being tested and the road feels rocky we can be confident in his plan and of our place in him.
Christianity’s bold claim is that it is true and gives meaning to life. Christians are not (in the words of Radiohead) just “waiting for something to happen” – we know that something – someone! – has happened! Our hope is not wishful thinking but objective confidence in Christ that gets things done. This means that the church is meant to be involved in the work of building a better future in the place where God has put us.
Confidence that doesn’t swerve
The letter to the Hebrews is written to stiffen the spines of struggling Christians. The challenge for the Hebrews, and for us, remains as it was when Elijah confronted the people on Mount Carmel: If God is God, don’t waver, don’t limp, don’t swerve! Don’t give up! Believe Jesus! At times when it feels you have no belief – believe! If you have belief keep on believing! Don’t swerve; hold onto your confidence.
Confidence because of who God is
God is faithful! God doesn’t waver! God keeps his word! All other rulers, kingdoms, authorities come and go but He remains! We can be confident because he is this rock. Let’s live in this confidence and believe Jesus!
The Social Problem of Moral Inequality
R R Reno argues in First Things that we are confronted by a moral inequality in society that is at least as damaging as income inequality. It's a fascinating argument, which moves from the way in which working- and middle- class families socialise and teach their children, building on Basil Bernstein and Mary Douglas, through to the way in which the elitism of contemporary ethical discourse marginalises and patronises working-class people. I'm no sociologist, but the whole piece has a serious ring of plausibility to it:
“To explain this dismissive assumption about rules and rituals, [Douglas] turns to Basil Bernstein’s study of working- and middle-class London families. He distinguished between two modes of social control. Working-class families tended toward what he calls positional control systems and restricted speech codes. Social roles are assigned rather than negotiated (thus “positional control”), and their obligatory demands explained in clear and unequivocal terms (thus “restricted codes”). “Why can’t I play with dolls?” Answer: “Because you’re a boy.”
“As the child develops, Douglas explains, “his experience flows into a grid of role categories; right and wrong are learnt in terms of the given structure; he himself is seen only in relation to that structure.” Thus the progressive criticisms of unthinking conformism, empty ritual, and rigid rules that suppress individuality.
“In this mode of social control, a successful, honorable life flows from settled habits encouraged by clear rules. What it means to be a good Catholic, a good father, or a good worker largely depends upon reliably occupying the sharply defined social positions. This certainly requires self-discipline and sacrifice. But roles are easily identified, and the rights and wrongs can be simply stated.
“Middle-class families socialize their children differently, emphasizing reflective analysis more than clear rules. They use personal control systems and elaborated or enhanced speech codes. Parents explain the whys and wherefores of rules. “Why should I do my homework?” Answer: “Because your mother and father want you to succeed.” Or “Because it’s important to live up to expectations.” As Douglas explains, in this instance “control is effected through either the verbal manipulation of feelings [or] through the establishment of reasons which link the child to his acts.”
“In this system, becoming a moral person—a good, sensitive, caring person—flows from endless negotiations with a wide variety of demands. For example, a good father needs to know what society expects (all social systems have rules), but he must also help his children navigate expectations in ways that blend or balance social conformity with individuality. In this and countless other ways, moral success requires adept manipulation of the open-ended, enhanced code…
“[Charles Murray] finds himself baffled by the moral attitudes of elite Americans. They lead relatively disciplined lives that accord fairly well with older norms. Yet they affirm a flexible, non-judgmental ethic. They hardly ever have children out of wedlock, but don’t speak ill of those who do. They clump in super-wealthy neighborhoods, often for the express purpose of protecting their children from the negative influences of behaviors they refuse to condemn.
“He shouldn’t be baffled. There’s no contradiction between elite non-judgmentalism and their disciplined lives. Their flexible ethic flows from the personal mode of social control and its elaborated codes. Today’s wealthy parents exhort their children to “make healthy choices” and “act responsibly.”
“These open-ended principles leave a great deal of room for judgment, true, but as Douglas explains, living by them is existentially demanding. An elaborated code makes the moral life a complex personal project “continually stirred into a ferment of ethical sensibilities.” Successfully achieving moral status—attaining the respect of one’s peers—requires a high level of verbal and symbolic skill. For example, what does it mean to be “inclusive”? A Bethesda–Chevy Chase High School student is well trained to answer that question. Not so a kid from Anacostia High School.
““It sounds like this mother’s heart is in the right place,” explained Kirsten Filizetti, a San Diego psychologist, when asked to comment for a newspaper story about a parent who punished her daughter for cruelly teasing a fellow student. “She was trying to help this girl understand what she had done and teach her a life lesson. However, parents should be careful about introducing shame and guilt onto kids as a form of punishment.” She should sit down with the child and help her understand the motivations behind bullying.
“It’s a small, almost innocent episode of therapeutic hauteur. But it’s typical and reflects the way in which our society is now divided by a moral inequality as severe as—and in all likelihood more damaging than—income inequality.
“A rule-based mode of social control is egalitarian. Its terms and application are broadly available. You don’t need advanced verbal skills or a high IQ to shame your children for stealing or lying or bullying. But Filizetti wants “understanding,” something for the most part accessible, as Douglas recognized, only to those who have the aptitude and training to transform simple moral rules into subtle systems of principle, circumstance, and emotions.
““Tolerant,” “progressive,” and “inclusive” are also part of the enhanced code now dominant. Those who are not adept at using (or manipulating) these terms are largely disqualified from exercising influence. If a working-class parent whose moral outlook is defined by clear rights and wrongs speaks up at a PTA meeting, the educational “professionals” are very likely to respond in a patronizing way: “I can understand why you might not want your child to have to talk about sexual orientation, but here at Glenn Spring elementary school we are committed to creating an open, inclusive environment for all students.” Moral authority—indeed, basic moral competence and the right to speak in public without being corrected by one’s betters—is restricted to enhanced-code virtuosi.”
A short series by Andy Johnston on Zwingli - the forgotten man of the Reformation.
To see all our previous series’, follow this link.
Ulrich Zwingli – The Forgotten Man of the Reformation
I doubt that there is even a single reader of this blog who has not heard of Martin Luther or John Calvin. These two stand like giants in the history of the Protestant Church. Love them or loathe them, you can hardly ignore them. Ulrich Zwingli, an exact contemporary of Martin Luther (Luther was born 10 November 1483 and Zwingli 1 January 1484), on the other hand, is nowadays almost unheard of outside geeky Church history circles. Yet his impact in the 1520s was enormous. He did as much as anyone except Luther himself in this period of the Reformation to challenge Roman Catholic orthodoxy. Whilst Calvin was still a pious Catholic student Zwingli was defining Reformed Protestantism in its original form. Calvin was to become the dominant theologian of the Reformed world but he was certainly not its progenitor.
If you visit Zurich today, the German-speaking Swiss city where Zwingli ministered first as a Catholic priest and then as a Protestant clergyman, you can still see a statue of him. He carries a sword in one hand and a Bible in the other hand. This tells us a great deal about Zwingli’s thinking and also about why he is so little known in the twenty first century. For Zwingli there was no such thing as a division between Church and State; they were one under the sovereign rule of God. Such thinking is very sixteenth and very non-twenty first century. His whole philosophy of ministry flowed from this union and it is this concept that is so vital in order for us to understand Zwingli’s contribution to the Protestant Reformation. Zwingli died on the battlefield on 11 October 1531 fighting the armies of the Catholic Swiss Cantons like some Old Testament judge. But before we confine him as an obscure footnote to the dustbin of history I would like to spend a little time at least looking at his contribution to the Protestant cause. It is deeper and more far-reaching than many of us imagine.
Zwingli and Systematic Exposition
I normally spend about 12-15 days in any year in various training contexts. Almost invariably, I am asked to teach on Church history. One of the questions I often ask aspiring preachers relates to the preaching model and style in the Churches where they are in ministry. Newfrontiers, the apostolic movement that I am pleased to be a part of, grew up in the 1980s and was shaped in large measure by the values and the gifting of Terry Virgo. Terry is one of the greatest preachers of his generation anywhere in the world. His approach to preaching was massively influenced by the ministry of Martyn Lloyd-Jones, whose systematic preaching, particularly through Romans and Ephesians became legendary. Terry and, generally speaking, the vast majority of the first generation of Newfrontiers preachers followed the Lloyd-Jones systematic model. These days, I tend to find that the room is much more divided. Many more of our Churches and preachers are tending towards topical preaching. Are we losing something here? Does it matter – after all Spurgeon, the prince of preachers, was a topical rather than a systematic preacher? And how does all this relate to Zwingli?
Preaching in the Middle Ages, such as it was, was based on the Church’s liturgical cycle. The various seasons in the Church’s year – Lent, Advent, Septuagesima (what on earth is that?), Easter etc – would determine the focus of the sermon. The sermon, incidentally, was the only part of the Church service that was in the vernacular. However, the fact that it was more comprehensible than the rest of the service did not mean that it was any more Biblical. Stories from the Bible would be mixed with legends from the lives of the saints along with other popular anecdotes. But since many parish priests were illiterate, a clear focus on the Biblical text was almost unheard of. Luther’s understanding of the authority and the supremacy of Scripture meant that the Lutheran Churches began a new way of preaching in the 1520s. The text of Scripture now became the focal point for the sermon. However, Luther and his supporters continued to use the Church’s liturgical cycle to decide what should be preached when. It was Zwingli who was the first systematic Biblical expositor.
In late 1518 Zwingli, who until this point in his career had been a parish priest and an army chaplain, was given preaching responsibilities at the great Zurich minster. Zwingli was already well known as a member of the Swiss circle of Christian humanists. He had first met Erasmus, the great Dutch humanist, in 1516 and this had created a huge impression on him. Towards the end of his life Zwingli claimed that he began to preach the Gospel in 1519. He did not mean that by this date he was a fully formed Protestant, but rather that it was at this point that he turned to the Scriptures. He had been a big fan of Erasmus’ Greek New Testament, first printed in 1516 and had committed large sections of it to memory. When Zwingli began his new ministry on 1 January 1519 he did so by announcing that he would preach systematically from the New Testament, beginning from St Matthew’s gospel. A whole new way of preaching had been born.
Calvin’s systematic preaching was a phenomenon. He preached, for example no less than 353 sermons expounding Isaiah from start to finish and 186 working through 1 Corinthians. When he was expelled from Geneva in 1538 he spent the next three years of his life in exile in Strasbourg. When he was invited back in 1541 it would come as no surprise to us that his next sermon followed on from the verse that he had been preaching three years earlier! But Calvin was not original in this approach to preaching. He drew on the model that Zwingli had created back in 1519.
The model Zwingli created, that Calvin developed, was then used by the Puritans in the seventeenth century, by Martyn Lloyd-Jones in the 1950s and 60s, by Terry Virgo and others inspired by Lloyd-Jones in the 80s and 90s and is used by thousands of Reformed preachers around the world today, young and old, the Driscoll generation as well as their Piper-esque forefathers. I would not go as far as saying that this is the only model for preaching that we should use. However, I would contend that it is the best model available. Used properly, it ensures that it is God’s word and not simply what’s in the news this week that is paramount in our preaching. It means that I am consciously and repeatedly driven to the text in my preaching and I do not end up resorting to my favourite ‘hobby horses’. It also forces us to address difficult topics that, if we were honest, we would rather avoid. I think Zwingli was on to something in discovering and advocating systematic expository preaching. Any thoughts?
How Christianity Destroyed Christendom
David Bentley Hart's essay in the most recent edition of First Things is worth the subscription price on its own. His theme is the way in which the seeds of Christendom's demise were sown, paradoxically, by the gospel itself. After a couple of thirteenth century vignettes that beautifully illustrate the paradox of Christendom - the emancipation of the slaves in Bologna, followed a few years later by Thomas Aquinas' infamous argument for executing heretics - Hart argues that the very essence of Christianity made Christendom both initially triumphant (to the point that it changed humanity's ethical imagination forever) and fundamentally unstable (such that it collapsed in on itself eventually). For Hart, Constantinianism and Christendom are not fundamental evils nor fundamental goods, but merely things which happened which brought about both good and bad results for the human race. But owing to the nature of the gospel, they could not, ultimately, survive:
“At the very least, however, it seems obvious to me that Christian culture could never generate any political and social order that, insofar as it employed the mechanisms of state power, would not inevitably bring about its own dissolution. Again, the translation of Christianity’s original apocalyptic ferment into a cultural logic and social order produced a powerful but necessarily unstable alloy. For all the good that it produced in the shaping of Western civilization, it also encumbered the faith with a weight of historical and cultural expectation often incompatible with the Gospel it proclaimed.
“When Christianity became not only a pillar of culture, but also a support of the state, and thereby attached itself to that human reality that necessarily sustains itself through the prudential use of violence, it attempted to close the spiritual abyss separating Christ and Pilate on the day of their confrontation in Jerusalem. At the same time, however, it created a cultural reality animated (or at least haunted) by the language of the Gospel: the often tacit but always substantial knowledge that all of human power’s pretenses and delusions and deceits have been exposed for what they are, and overthrown by God’s Incarnation as a man who was the victim of all the enfranchised religious, political, and social forces of his time and place. There was no way for such an alliance to avoid subverting itself.
“I am not saying only—though I am saying—that the concrescence of Christianity into Christendom necessarily led in the West, over the course of centuries, to its gradual mortification, its slow attrition through internal stress, and finally its dissipation into the inconclusiveness of human history and the ephemerality of political orders. I am saying also that Christendom could not indefinitely survive the corrosive power of the revelation that Christianity itself had introduced into Western culture. Christian culture’s often misunderstood but ultimately irrepressible consciousness of the judgment that was passed upon civil violence at Easter, by God, was always the secret antagonist of Christendom as a political order.
“Certainly, reflective intellectual historians have often enough noted the ironic continuity between the early modern rise of principled unbelief and the special “apocalyptic vocation” of Western culture; and the observations of Ernst Bloch and many others on the “inevitable” atheistic terminus of the Christian message are, while not correct, at least comprehensible: for modern Western atheism is chiefly a Christian heresy, and could not have arisen in a non-Christian setting. Which yields the troubling thought that perhaps the historical force ultimately most destructive of the unity of the Christian culture of the West has been not principally atheism, materialism, capitalism, collectivism, or what have you—these may all be secondary manifestations of some deeper problem—but Christianity. Or, rather, I suppose I should say, an essential Christian impulse that, as a result of the contradictions inherent in Christendom, had become alienated from its true rationality and ultimate meaning…
“So perhaps the best moral sense Christians can make of the story of Christendom now, from the special vantage of its aftermath, is to recall that the Gospel was never bound to the historical fate of any political or social order, but always claimed to enjoy a transcendence of all times and places. Perhaps its presence in human history should always be shatteringly angelic: It announces, even over against one’s most cherished expectations of the present or the future, a truth that breaks in upon history, ever and again, always changing or even destroying the former things in order to make all things new. That being so, surely modern Christians should find some joy in being forced to remember that they are citizens of a Kingdom not of this world, that here they have no enduring city, and that they are called to live as strangers and pilgrims on the earth.”
Believe Jesus: A Perfect Sacrifice by a Perfect Person to Perfect Some Very Imperfect People
Human beings are creatures that sacrifice. Even in cultures (like ours) which don’t offer obvious sacrifices to the gods, sacrifice is part of everyday life. There are different explanations for why humans make sacrifices. For example, Darwin says we do so because we are social animals and need to co-operate in order to survive; while Freud says we sacrifice our true desires as the price we pay for living in a civilised society.
The Bible offers a more complete explanation for our sacrifices, that it is because everything that is and all we are owes its existence to God. The Bible describes two primary forms of owing: Worship and Guilt (which tends to get dressed up as feelings of shame, inadequacy, or having something to prove).
The point of Hebrews 10 is that Christ’s sacrifice was the perfect act of worship which perfectly dealt with guilt. His sacrifice frees us to worship and from guilt.
Christ’s perfect sacrifice ends self-serving
God has always been after the hearts of his people, but we so often fall into the trap of thinking that making a sacrifice will enable us to pay him off. This kind of attitude leads to the kind of dead works religion that God hates. (Look at these OT scriptures which speak of this: Is 1:11-17, Is 66:3-4, Jer 7:21-23, Mic 6:6-8, Hos 6:6, Am 5:21-24)
True sacrifice is not an insurance policy, that will get you out of trouble, but the uninhibited joy of relationship. This is made possible for us by the perfection of Christ’s sacrifice. His perfection covers our imperfections!
Christ’s perfect sacrifice ends self-justification
Even worse than making sacrifices as a kind of insurance policy is making sacrifices and imagining that this places God in our debt. All of us are prone to do this!
This kind of self-justification is dead works religion because God is sovereign and can do what he likes; and because he has already given you everything! Any attempt to put God in our debt is pitiable! Instead we should look upon the perfect sacrifice of Christ and see how it is that which justifies us. Jesus’ sacrifice brings us into the uninhibited joy of relationship with God!
Christ’s perfect sacrifice ends self-pity
Whenever we say something like, “I’m not a very good Christian” or, “My sacrifices are never enough to please God,” we are entirely missing the point!
The good news is that Christ’s sacrifice was perfect! We should think less of our imperfections and more of the perfections of the Saviour! In him we have the victory; in him we are counted as perfect; because of the forgiveness he has obtained for us there is no further offering for sin. This means we can know the uninhibited joy of relationship with God!
A Perfect Sacrifice by a Perfect Person to Perfect Some Very Imperfect People
Christ’s sacrifice was the end of sacrifice. It dealt with our need to make sacrifice because of our guilt and has freed us to offer (in the words of the Matt Redman song) ‘a gifted response’ – something God gives to us and we then return to him. Our guilt dealt with, we are enabled to worship, not as a self-serving or self-justifying or self-pitying attempt at sacrifice, but out of the uninhibited joy of relationship with God!
How the West Lost God
There's been a lot of interesting stuff written recently about secularisation. For those who are busy trying to contextualise the gospel to contemporary culture, it's enormously important to ask the question: how and why has the West become so secular? Why, as Charles Taylor asks pertinently in his A Secular Age, is it so hard to believe in God in the modern West, when in the medieval world it was almost impossible not to? All sorts of factors are proposed as crucial - the Reformation's individualism, the scientific revolution, industrialisation, liberalism and democracy, and so on - but in a new book, Mary Eberstadt argues (in an interesting reversal of the causality usually assumed) that the decline of the family was chiefly responsible for the loss of religion. Her book, How the West Really Lost God, has been getting a lot of attention recently, and has just been the subject of a superb review in Christianity Today.
The review by Jordan Hylden, who is researching for his PhD at Duke, is sympathetic to Eberstadt’s approach, but argues that it is insufficient. To make this point, a summary of the main alternative view, as represented by Taylor, John Milbank and others, is provided, and it is hard to think of a better three paragraph summary anywhere of ‘how the West lost God’:
Once upon a time, everyone lived in an enchanted world, filled with spirits and magic. In the West, the rise of Judaism and Christianity began to displace the spirits—only the one true God was almighty, and the spirits were either worthless idols or weaklings in the face of the Lord’s power. Christ, as it were, began to cast out the spirits from the world. But the ancient and medieval church’s sacramentalism kept the world enchanted, only now with the grace of God. This began to retreat with the Reformation, when God’s presence shifted from the sacraments and the priests to the Word alone. Nothing was enchanted now, except the Word.
This Word marched forth, carrying with it a powerful drive to reform European society after its demands. To a large extent, it succeeded, but at the same time religious conflict unleashed years of bloody war. Many became skeptical that the Word could really bring about reform, but gained confidence that we could reform the world ourselves. For the first time in history, it became possible to conceive of an “exclusive humanism.” Secular politics, science, and technology became humanism’s tools, and as time went on these took hold of more and more of human activity and imagination. God became a hypothesis that society had little need for.
Meanwhile, the post-Reformation churches had some success at mobilizing believers, in a new world in which faith was no longer simply part of everyday social life. But the church all too often allied itself with fading political regimes, discrediting it in the eyes of many. The First World War’s senseless violence shattered for a generation the old Christendom synthesis of church and state, and Europe’s churches have never been the same. The church held on in America, since the war did not shatter us like it did the Europeans, and because our churches were not in any case allied so tightly with the state. But the 1960s began to change that, as the civil rights movement and Vietnam began to topple the confidence of many in the American Establishment, and insofar as the “mainline” churches were viewed as part of the status quo. The American social imagination split in two, and ever since then has been characterized by culture wars, with most of religion on the conservative side.
Of course, when mapping something that takes place over several centuries and involving dozens of countries and billions of people, trajectories and trends are never as simple as that. But as a sketch, I think Hylden’s overview is immensely helpful. If you want to know why your town is so much more secular than it was a few hundred years ago, this is a great place to start.
Best of the Rest w/e 9 Aug 2013
Due to staff absences, we'll be taking a break from BOTR for the next few weeks, but before we do, here are just two articles you may find encouraging:
The first is a report from Newfrontiers’ annual youth camping event newday, which took place last week. Each year at newday Adrian Holloway has one evening on which he prays for the sick, and see God perform miraculous healing miracles in scores of the young people. He begins the meeting by sharing some of the testimonies from the previous year, which have been independently verified by the person’s family doctor. This is the transcript of one of those amazing stories.
The second is from earlier this year, also from the newday website, also to do with prayer for healing. It is very different, but we hope you’ll find it equally faith-building.
Have a great August, and we’ll be back with more BOTR in September.
Carson on Prayer
D. A. Carson, in A Call to Spiritual Reformation:
“The men of Israel sampled their provisions but did not inquire of the LORD. Then Joshua made a treaty of peace with them to let them live, and the leaders of the assembly ratified it by oath.” (Joshua 9:14-15).
What a damning indictment! Yet could not the text be paraphrased somewhat and applied to many of us? “John Smith weighed the alternative employment opportunities before him, but did not inquire of the Lord.” “Jane Brown sought a lot of advice before she made her decision, but did not inquire of the Lord.” “The Evangelical Community Church formed a committee to explore possible approaches to evangelising their community, but did not inquire of the Lord.”
It is painfully easy for us to come to all kinds of critical points in ministry, service, family development, changes in vocation, and, precisely because we have enjoyed spiritual victories in the past, approach these matters with sophisticated criteria but without prayer. We love our independence. As a result we may repeatedly stumble and fall, because although we have exercised all our intellectual ingenuity we have not sought God’s face, we have not begged him for his wisdom.
Three for a Girl and Four for a Boy
A while back I was doing a Q&A session where people grilled me on a number of theological issues for an hour or so. It was good fun, though challenging, and in the midst of the classics (suffering, predestination, the trinity etc) came a rather unexpected question, ‘Is it Biblical to discover the gender of your baby before it’s born?’
I don’t yet have kids, so it’s not a question I’ve ever had cause to consider, but here’s the essence of the answer I gave. See what you think, and feel free to add your own thoughts:
Of course, in Biblical times the technology we have today was not available. There were no pre-natal scans. That said, angels did have a nasty habit of turning up and telling the likes of Mary and Elizabeth not only the gender of their child, but what to call them! (I picture Joseph with his fingers in his ears complaining that the angel had ‘ruined the surprise.’)
But angelic encounters aside, the Bible says nothing prescriptive about this issue. I think it’s a matter of personal choice, and it’s a decision that each couple must make for themselves. However, I think there are a few Biblical principles that I would want to throw into the discussion:
First, children are a gift from God (Psalm 127:3) and there’s no returns policy! I would say that each couple should take the course of action that helps them to enjoy and prize that gift the most. That will be different from couple to couple based on a number of factors, including personality type, personal history and preconceived hopes and dreams.
An example: A little while ago I had arranged to take my wife to a restaurant we’d been wanting to visit for years. I had been planning (and saving!) secretly for quite some time, and deliberated over how I should tell her. Should we just turn up there on the day, a complete surprise? Or should I tell her in advance to give her time to get excited? Knowing my wife, and how she responds to things like this, I knew that she would value the treat more if I gave her a week’s notice. Sure enough, when I told her she was excited and immediately began planning what she would wear, thinking about what it would be like and imagining how the food would taste. It turned it from a meal into an experience… and we weren’t disappointed.
Some people respond well to surprises and others don’t. I’m definitely in the latter category! If knowing the gender of your child in advance will help you to enjoy and prize the gift God has given you, then go for it. But if you thrive on surprise, then don’t. Waiting to see as the child emerges could be one of the rare, unparalleled, real surprises of your life.
Since children are a gift, we need to trust that God knows what He’s doing. In some cultures, baby girls are valued less than boys, and female infanticide is still practised. In those settings, knowing the gender of your child in advance will likely cause resentment, or worse. Similarly, though less-extremely, some people spend all their lives longing for a girl and get disappointed when they find out they’re having a boy. If you have a strong preference either way and are likely to be disappointed, or not value/love the child if he/she turns out to be the opposite gender to what you had hoped for, then I would suggest you need to think really carefully about whether or not you find out in advance. For some people, knowing with a few months warning will give them time to get used to the idea. For others, knowing in advance may cause them to develop negative emotions towards the child, and they would be better off using the time in the run up to the birth to iron out their preconceived ideas and to teach themselves to see their child as a gift and a privilege, whatever it’s gender.
It comes down to knowing yourself, knowing your spouse, and discussing it openly and honestly together.
Also, it is worth remembering that technology is not infallible! Some couples think they’re getting a boy and prepare accordingly; only choose male names, paint the room blue and buy football kits aplenty, only to find out that little floating thing they could see so distinctly in the scan wasn’t quite what they thought it was!!
And finally, my main reason for nervousness is the trajectory it represents. In a relatively short period of time we have gone from not being at all able to know the gender of your child, to being able to scan for both gender and potential illnesses. Whilst there are arguably benefits to knowing ahead of time if your child may be born with a serious illness, I have little doubt that such technological ability has led to a significant rise in abortions, many for utterly indefensible reasons. Following the trajectory through, who knows where we will end up? We are already seeing the beginnings of the ability to create ‘designer babies.’ Whilst I am not uncomfortable with knowing the gender of your child before its birth, the thoughts of how that technology has advanced and will continue to advance does leave me feeling a little uneasy.
So, having no children of my own, I felt somewhat unqualified to offer an opinion on the subject… but those were the thoughts I shared in the moment, on the spot.
What would you have said?
Leadership Lessons from Google
I'm not an expert on Google or anything. I've never studied their corporate culture, read any books about them, or even met anyone who works there. But I've been fascinated by them, ever since my friend Greg told me in 1998 that there was an unusually good new search engine available and that it was likely to take over. And my very, very cheap seats view of this extraordinarily successful company has given me a few leadership lessons. Here's three of them, with a bit of application to church leadership thrown in.
Worldwide influence requires world-class intelligence.
The reason Google went from nobodies in an online world stuffed full of new ideas, through to dominant market leaders in five years and a globally recognised verb within ten years, is because their algorithm was better than everyone else’s. It wasn’t because they spent millions on advertising or got particularly high profile endorsements (when did you last see a TV ad for Google?), but because their search engine found a way of returning the results you wanted, rather than - as used to be the case with its competitors - a random smorgasbord of words and concepts vaguely related to what you typed in. The reason their algorithm was better than everyone else’s was because they figured out how to do something that nobody else had worked out how to do. And the reason they figured it out is because they were founded by, and then started recruiting, extremely intelligent people. To this day, they continue to hire the best and the brightest, paying them huge salaries, to keep ahead of the game. Being known and followed by everyone else is much easier if you’re cleverer than everyone else.
Personally, I think the significance of this, which is obviously not something that we needed Google to prove, is not always grasped by those seeking to reach people with the gospel. Make a list of Christian leaders in previous centuries whose influence touched the known world - Jesus, Paul, Justin Martyr, Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine, Basil, Athanasius, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Wesley, Edwards, Carey, Spurgeon, Barth, Bonhoeffer and so on - and you’ll notice that they were all extremely intelligent people (whether they had the equivalent of University degrees, as most of them did, or not). The speed at which information flows around the world today has made this even more important, because the known world is bigger, and the geographical constraints that applied to intellectual influence in previous generations have been virtually eliminated. Clearly, this does not for a moment imply that any moral or spiritual superiority is conferred by having a quick mind (and there are plenty of biblical texts that would seem to pull in the opposite direction!) It does imply, though, that global influence - which for better or worse is something that many churches and denominations aspire to - requires global thinkers. Ideas travel top-down, not bottom-up.
Media-saturated people find excessive branding quite annoying.
Remember what search engines and online portals looked like before Google? Remember AltaVista, Yahoo, HotBot, Lycos, Hotmail, AOL, and all those sites in the late nineties? They were the most cluttered, brand- and logo-filled, over-marketed spaces on planet earth, and they were incredibly irritating. The first time I saw Google’s anti-branded homepage, with just one word and one box on it, I couldn’t believe my eyes. Of course, their intelligence (see above) and understanding of how influence works (see below) meant that they didn’t really need “adverts”, in the traditional sense, so they could give us the clean homepage we always wanted and yet still have a revenue stream; it’s not obvious that such a thing would be possible, and Facebook still haven’t managed it, so kudos to Google for that, as well. What’s interesting, though, is that the anti-brand, anti-logo, anti-clutter approach is still fashionable, now that people have worked out how to do it - “less is more” has become axiomatic - and this presumably stems from the sheer volume of branded flannel that all of us encounter in a day. Anti-brands are on the rise, particularly when it comes to sub-brands (Search, Images, Maps, Mail, etc), and the proliferation of brands have become tiresome.
Except in the church, where the rush to brand things is as strong as ever. Church programmes and ministries, outside of the ultra-hip indie church communities who have realised how anachronistic this all is, are almost all branded differently - the kids work, the youth work, the old people’s work, the poor relief ministry, every conference, every new initiative - which leaves church websites and brochures (!) looking like AltaVista’s homepage circa 1997 (although the same few names always appear: ignite, reverb, inspire, radiant, catalyst, and so on). Church names themselves have become brands, encouraged no doubt by the ever increasing popularity of multisite; new churches, especially in the US, are encouraged to form networks (read: branded groups of churches), and then movements (read: denominations with better fonts). If I were feeling impish, I might suggest that the proliferation of new brands in Newfrontiers over the last two years is simply the reductio ad abspheredom of this delayed cultural trend - but I’m probably in enough trouble already. Suffice it to say that I think Google has something to teach us here as well.
Influence is not what most of us think it is.
The defining feature (as I understand it) of Google’s offering, and the reason that both of the above things are true, could be described as their redefinition of influence. It’s probably more complicated than this, but I’ve heard it explained as follows. When you typed a word into an old-style search engine, the sites that would appear at the top of the list would be the ones that had the most links on the internet. So if you were linked to a thousand times, you would appear above a site that was linked to twenty times. Sounds logical - but the sheer volume of mundane material out there, and the incentive for companies to fiddle the system, meant that you never found what you wanted. Google changed all that by thinking about influence differently. In their algorithm, it mattered less that you were linked to by lots of pages, and more that you were linked to by pages that were linked to by lots of pages. Some sites carry far more weight than others, so if you were linked to by twenty sites, but one of them was the BBC, you would appear higher in the list than someone linked to by a thousand random blogs and small company homepages. In other words, the way influence really works - through cultural gatekeepers and arbiters of credibility, rather than through a democratic popularity contest - was taken into account in the way the search engine functioned. Which is why these days, you almost always find what you’re looking for.
This is a really important idea, because it breaks the link between popularity and influence. Justin Bieber has 42 million (mostly teenage) followers on Twitter, but he may have far less influence on the culture as a whole than someone whom almost nobody has heard of with 10,000 followers, depending on who those 10,000 are. The same is true, of course, of theology; a book published by Brill that sells a thousand copies may well wield more influence, when considered a decade later, than a book published by Authentic that sells a million. It’s true of the resources we produce as churches (one academic paper or national newspaper article will be more influential than a raft of widely distributed paperback books and MP3 recordings). And it should also affect our evangelistic activity: God can save anyone, anywhere, but it is undeniably harder to for an individual to believe the gospel if the gatekeepers and arbiters of credibility in their culture - academics, high-end journalists, scriptwriters, highbrow comedians, feature writers - think it is incoherent. So engaging in apologetics and evangelism at the higher academic end, as well as at a more popular level, is vital in making it easier for everyone in the culture to respond to Jesus. (An important explanation of what responding to this might look like, from William Lane Craig, can be found here. This profile in the Chronicle of Higher Education is also worth a look, since it shows how Craig is evidently practising what he is preaching).
So I think Google, whether you love them for their search engine or hate them for shutting Google Reader, have a few things to teach us about intelligence, branding and influence. Any thoughts?
Believe Jesus: Blood
Every worldview identifies particular problems as being the most significant for humanity. They also usually offer a solution to this problem. However, not all worldviews are equal, and some are definitely better than others!
The writer of Hebrews says,
1. The Problem is human separation from God because of sin
2. The Solution is the sacrificial death of Christ
3. The Offer is free access into the presence of God
Verse 27 sums up the problem: “You will die, and you will be judged.” Hebrews 9 describes how the old covenant sought to bridge this problem through the sacrificial system that enabled the Israelites to come into God’s presence. The bloody sacrifices of the old covenant show us how serious the problem of sin is – that it really is a life and death problem. Sacrifice was a bright red declaration that a price had been paid for sin, and that sin was covered over so God would not bring judgment for it. Sin is such a serious problem that it has affected everything – it is a problem that runs deep and wide through everything, both the human heart and the cosmos. Because of it everything is out of whack!
To right a wrong always costs someone, and, in the end, God has borne the cost of our sin. Sin is not an abstract idea but a real problem needing a real solution – God has provided the solution in the work of Christ! Christ’s sacrifice was not the passive sacrifice of an animal but active, willing, and self-giving. Through it we experience ‘eternal redemption’ (v12). Jesus said himself that, “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matt 20:28). The solution to our fundamental problem is redemption, made possible by the blood of Christ washing us clean.
The offer that God makes to us is summed up in the word ‘appearing’ which appears in verses 11, 24, 26 & 28. Christ has appeared as high priest, the guarantee that his sacrifice was sufficient. Christ appeared in God’s presence for us, the guarantee that we will be with God, too. Christ appeared once for all, the guarantee that he can save us! Christ will appear again to save us, the guarantee that in him we will inherit the lot! In Christ we are promised all that God is and has with all of God’s people for all eternity – what an offer!